Last week I was speaking at an event for an energy company in the Nordics.
The night before the event we were having dinner together and I noticed people avidly checking their phones for the latest score in a sports match of seemingly national significance. When I asked what sport it was I was surprised to learn that it was a chess match. How could a potentially slow-paced game attract so much attention in real-time I pondered?
Now contrast this with another sports event, when FIFA took football (soccer) to the USA. They were asked to shift the pace of the match from two 45-minute halves with a break (standard football timings), to more of a basketball format, with 20-minute sessions and three breaks. The US television channels claimed that an American audience shouldn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t watch 45 minutes straight without a breather.
While these are just anecdotes rather than careful analyses of each of the countries or cultures in question, they do hint at something we should perhaps pay more attention to in our lives: pace.
This is something I’ve examined in myself in recent years, when I’ve thought about what I’m good at and why I struggle with other endeavors. One example is when I first started speaking at events. My biggest challenge was to talk at a slower pace so that I could be clearly understood, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it.
I eventually realized that the speed at which I spoke was innately tied up with the speed at which I approached just about everything in life, perhaps under the impression that that made me more productive. This meant that in order to speak more slowly, I had to practice just ‘being’ at a slower pace. I made myself walk slower, breathe slower, eat slower…. and only by doing all of those other things was I finally able to master presenting at a coherent speed.
It turned out that what I really needed to do was step outside of my comfortable pace of being, and learn to operate in another rhythm. It was a realization that for me, made the difference between excelling at something that was critical for my role, or continually falling short.
Now, pace isn’t something we talk much about at work, but perhaps it should be. We all have a natural pace that makes us great at certain things, but holds us back in other respects.
Maybe take a moment today to consider your natural pace – are you a chess match or a basketball game? And then practice ‘playing the other sport.’ What does it feel like when you simply walk a little faster or slower? What would you be better at if you sped up or slowed down at work? It may be that getting comfortable with a different pace, a different rhythm is the key to helping you master something you’ve been grappling with for years.
 Surely a turn of phrase that gives away how little I know about sports, let alone writing about them
 I appreciate the advertising community may have had something to do with this narrative
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning the art of Improv. For those of you who have never experienced such joy, Improv is a form of completely unscripted theatre or comedy, where a group of fully-grown adults create a story, characters and some kind of plot completely in the moment. As we walk onto the stage we have no idea who our character will be, where the scene is, or what the relationship is that we have with each other And yet, somehow it works. Somehow, we create something that is coherent, makes sense and sometimes – just sometimes – is hilariously funny.
Now, if this were a team in an organisation, we would consider it doomed to fail: No goals, no clarity on team roles, no accountability – no chance. But in this domain it succeeds. It got me thinking about what it is that makes it possible for Improv to… well, just work really, and what that could then teach us about creating successful teams in organisations. It all starts with three simple rules that allow everything else to follow freely:
#1 Listen to offers
The first time I got on stage to do an Improv scene my mind was screaming to me: “Say something. Anything. For the love of God fill the silence!” The result: disaster and a very public way to learn the hidden beauty of staying quiet and listening. And so comes the first rule: listen to what others are offering. The only way that something unscripted can work is if you are truly listening to all the cues your team are sending you about where you are in the scene, who your character is to them, and what the hell’s going on. Likewise, they need to be listening out for every possible piece of information from you so that you can all create something together.
There are many parallels here to what we see happening in teams. I can recall so many meetings in which it’s seemed like we’re all working off a different script. And why? Because that’s exactly what we were doing. We were armed with our own individual scripts about what we wanted to achieve, our foregone conclusions about the matter, ready to force that on others whether consciously or without even realizing that’s what we were doing. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team, try leaving the script behind. Make a conscious effort to focus and hear every ‘offer’ made by the other person. Every sentence, every word.
#2 Accept offers
The most awkward moments in Improv are when one actor makes an ‘offer’ in terms of what’s going on in the scene, for example: “Hey, great to bump into you. We always seem to see each other at this same park” only for their fellow actor to reject that offer and instead pursue their own agenda: “This isn’t a park it’s a school classroom, what were you thinking?” There’s really nowhere good to go from that point. It’s a clear rejection and now you are both completely lost somewhere in a… school parkroom? Or a park school class? Huh? When this happens in Improv it’s painfully visible and the chaos that ensues is immediate.
Once again, having learned this the hard way in performances, I’ve become particularly aware of it in other realms of life and work. How often do we listen to someone’s idea (offer) only to reject it, either subtly by moving the conversation back to our own brilliant idea, or by outright declaring it impossible due to a set of constraints reeled out too quickly to be a true response to what we’ve just heard?
I think the reason we find this so hard is because it requires us to be vulnerable. In a scene, if I accept someone else’s offer in terms of where we are or what our relationship is, then I have to put more thought and energy into responding than if I were to simply shut it down and force my own idea – inevitably one I’m more comfortable with. It’s unknown territory and I can’t guarantee I’ll sail through it. Likewise, exploring someone else’s way of thinking at work means letting go of our reassuringly familiar reality to step into theirs. It’s uncomfortable. As a leader, you may feel you need to add value by having the vision and providing clarity of output. You may feel that if you’re not driving the meeting or the project, then you’re not doing you role as a leader. However, the two are of not mutually exclusive at all.
Next time you feel yourself inclined to say no to an idea – to reject someone’s offer – perhaps take a moment. Acknowledge that it feels a bit uncomfortable and then stick with it. It may be that the discomfort lasts only a few moments and is the path to something you never thought possible.
#3 Make other people look good
Every so often, I’ll be in a scene and see an opportunity to throw in a line so witty it’s sure to have the crowd thinking, ‘God she’s hilarious’. And every time I’ve given into the temptation it’s resulted in a soul-destroying awkward pause. Now, while this is no doubt useful feedback about the quality of my jokes, it’s also a fairly unanimous experience in Improv. Why? Because Improv is about teams, not stand up comics, and any attempt to elevate yourself over and above your fellow Improvisers just destroys whatever it is you were creating together.
And so comes the third rule: make others look good. The logic is pretty simple when you think about it: if everyone does it, then everyone ends up looking good. Lovely. So what happens if we take this approach in our teams? If we all go in agreeing that our role is to make our team members look good rather than being our individual best?
This doesn’t mean that individual performance is completely negated, but that in an environment in which no one superstar (or stand up comic genius) is sufficient to succeed, we all embrace working together. We all help amplify the performance of others and bask in the great feeling that comes with knowing that they will do the same for us. This is how we can unleash additional value, enabling others else to shine and then building on that ‘greatness’.
These rules are pretty simple. But what resonated with me was how incredibly important they are in any successful collaboration – whether it be a friendship, a relationship, a project team or maybe even an Improv group. And that they are mutually reinforcing. Follow one of the rules avidly and you’re sure to find yourself deploying the other two: really listen to the other person in your team and you will find yourself immediately more likely to accept their offer and help them look good.
In increasingly unpredictable and unscripted worlds, perhaps now is the time to truly embrace improvisation.
Despite all the talk about the strength of peer networks and the new technological utopia in which increased connectivity yields instant equality, power is still often a zero-sum game. In fact, getting organisations to do away with hierarchies is proving to be next to impossible. Notwithstanding the rich example provided by Morning Star and millions of books that call for employee empowerment, shared power arrangements remain extremely rare. On the other hand, for all its enemies, hierarchy is amazingly resilient.
Why do hierarchies persist? In 1832, as Charles Darwin travelled through Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America, he came across a series of native tribes whose living conditions he described as ‘‘wretched.’’ He blamed their conditions directly on lack of power structures: ‘‘The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved.”[i] Since he made that assertion over 180 years ago, numerous social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of organisation were more beneficial, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii]
Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and roles serve a purpose. At its most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and promotes efficient interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity. Hierarchy also offers purely psychological benefits. Research indicates that perceptions of our rank and status in hierarchies are extremely important to us. In his book The Status Syndrome, Michael Marmot details how closely status is aligned with longevity and good health. Status even surpasses education and income, two factors that usually determine how healthy an individual can be throughout their life. An indicator of this is when Zappos gave the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of its 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their hard-won management rank and the status that accompanies it.[iii]
Whilst it seems hierarchies are inevitable and here to stay, there is no doubt that they can sometimes be dysfunctional. The way forward therefore, is to reap the benefits of hierarchy while at the same time mitigating its negatives. At our recent Future of Work (FoW) Masterclass on Power and Leadership, we asked our participants the following four key questions in order to help them assess and future-proof their organisations’ power structures:
Does power inhibit voice? The vast literature on voice has underscored the reluctance of employees lower in hierarchy to communicate with their bosses. Laboratory research on groups also illustrates a similar pattern; participants temporarily assigned a low-power position tend to voice their opinions less, even though the hierarchy was just constructed moments before. How does your organisation create a psychologically safe environment for all employees to voice their opinions and ideas?
Does power have legitimacy? To ensure legitimacy of power, formal rank and competency must always align. However, people have been shown to rise to power for reasons other than competence. For example, research indicates that we are more likely to select leaders according to their sex, age and physical attractiveness than competence. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P 1500 companies led by men named John. And John is more successful if he has a deep voice, a large signature and superior golf game.[iv] How does your organisation ensure that power has legitimacy?
How do leaders cope with power? Hierarchies will harm collective success when the possession of power induces leaders to be disinhibited and less sensitive to others’ needs. A significant body of empirical research demonstrates that there is a little bit of ‘Trump’ in all powerful people. In other words, powerful people are more inclined to be rude, to lie and cheat.[v] How does your organisation help leaders to cope with this dark side of power?
What is the effect on the powerless? Profound insights from neuroscience have brought to attention the multi-dimensional effect of powerlessness on employees. For example, lack of power has been shown to have negative consequences on employee well-being, motivation and even cognition. These findings should not really surprise you. Not being able to control your environment produces feelings of helplessness and stress, and study after study has documented that stress can harm your health and well-being. How does your organisation give employees opportunities to feel powerful, so that they do not suffer the consequences associated with powerlessness?
By understanding and answering these questions, organisations can create hierarchies that lead to victory with the fewest causalities along the way. The key lesson is that the future of power lies in making peace with hierarchies and learning how to empower employees without dismantling power structures.
[i] Darwin, C. (1906). The voyage of the Beagle (No. 104). JM Dent & sons.
[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.
[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.
[iv] Sebenius, A. (2016). CEOs Behaving Badly. The Atlantic
My partner and I went to Rwanda a couple of weeks ago. Our mission was to trek up the country’s highest mountains to see the mountain gorillas that inhabit these bamboo forests.
People had told us that this would be a “life-changing experience” and indeed both of us came back changed. But it was not seeing the gorillas that changed us. It was being in Rwanda.
Most people will have a vague recollection of the terrible genocide that ravaged the country 20 years ago when people, often neighbours, turned on each other during 100 days of bloodletting. More than a million people died.
Yet now people appear to live in peace with each other and the country is prospering. How could this happen and what might we learn from it?
I realise it’s trite to make any comparison between the terror of a genocide and the organisational life and change that I study. Yet I feel I’ve learnt a great deal from my experiences in Rwanda and wanted to share them because it seems to me that there is a great deal to learn. Here are four insights:
– Facing up to the truth. The truth in the genocide was beyond imagination. Yet painstakingly and courageously, families and communities faced up to what had happened. First in courts and then in community groups the truth of what happened was openly discussed and confronted.
– Removing negative symbols of the past. The hatred between groups prior to the genocide was fuelled in part by cattle owning. Some groups had more cattle than others and their superiority was demonstrated through cattle ownership. After the genocide the government stopped the grazing of cattle on public ground – all cattle had to be kept in domestic yards. They also ensured that every family – however poor – owned a cow.
– Creating pride. Rwanda is spotless – not just cleaner than any African country, but cleaner than London. Every month the whole community get together and clean their space. It’s an act of enormous pride. What ever their past, this is a community capable of competence, they can keep their street clean.
– Creating a sense of the future. Almost every young person we spoke to felt positive about their future. They did not want to describe themselves through their tribal grouping but rather as ‘Rwandans’. They felt positive about the future of the country and trusted their leaders.
These are four lessons that anyone involved in corporate change knows. What the extraordinary change that Rwanda tells us is that it’s possible – by following these four lessons relentlessly – to turn around from even the darkest of moments.
This week, Republican candidate Paul Ryan was confirmed as the new Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, his acceptance of the post was on the condition that he would travel less than previous speakers in order to preserve valuable time with his family. Of course this type of demand from such a high-profile man garnered a lot of press attention, as notions of family time and flexible working remain rooted in the ‘working mum’ domain in many countries, industries and companies. It’s still (sadly) rare to hear as may working dads negotiating school drop offs with busy work schedules, as working mums. So, will Mr. Ryan’s bold statement be a catalyst for change?
My work at the Future of Work Research Consortium highlights time and again the importance of role models when it comes to shifting an organisation’s culture. No matter how many policies and practices HR may devise around flexible working and work/life balance, if those at the top aren’t using them, then those attempting to climb the ladder will take this as a signal that they shouldn’t either. Having leaders simply avail of flexible working options isn’t enough either. They need to use the options in a way that is visible to the rest of the organisation. One of the most interesting comments I heard recently from leaders at a Professional Services firm was that they were working flexibly and assumed that others in their teams were doing so as well. However, this was not the reality. Their teams were often unaware that they were taking this approach as the leaders weren’t communicating about it and hence the signal that this kind of autonomy in working style was accepted and, lo and behold, normal was not being received. Mr. Ryan’s very visible commitment to work/life balance will hopefully act as the cue to his team that making time for family is not a barrier to success.
That is the implication for his own team, but what about the wider American and Global audience? What impact can this action have on a larger scale? These are tougher questions. While Mr. Ryan has the bargaining power to make such demands, the average American worker does not. Moreover, he has previously voted against providing paid family leave for federal employees, which has made him an unlikely advocate for a cultural shift in favour of work/life balance. It’s promising to see signs of his change in views on this and we will have to expect that as a matter of course, he will now work for these rights to be extended broadly so that it is both socially acceptable and financially viable for all dads – and not just those in powerful political positions – to exercise the same choices.
So, can Paul Ryan move the needle on work/life balance? My view is that he can certainly change one important aspect of the dialogue. We need more male leaders to demonstrate their desire to be actively involved in their children’s upbringing and highlight the challenges they face in juggling responsibilities – and of course the flexibility they avail of in order to strike a balance. Making this a conversation that managers have with all employees, rather than a request working mums submit to HR, will be a significant step in achieving work/life balance and gender parity.
Historically the answer was simple – money. That’s why the HR function of most companies goes to such extreme lengths to design pay packets (bonuses, team-based rewards, stock options and so on) and to decide through antiquated performance management systems who gets paid what. Indeed, it’s why they’ve been persuaded that senior leaders really are worth up to 200% more than the pay of an average employee.
Yet we have known for sometime that although pay might indeed be a valuable asset for an employee, it’s unlikely to be the driver for their motivation. Indeed, years of research have shown that this valuable asset turns out more often to be a source of dissatisfaction rather than a motivator. Most people don’t work harder, or more creatively or cooperatively because they are paid more.
So recently the search has been on for more ‘intangible assets’ that could be really valued by employees. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to work more flexibly, or the chance to work for a boss that likes you, or to work in a convivial open plan office that employees value. And indeed, perhaps it’s this combination that results in employees being engaged rather than disengaged.
I think – to use a simple metaphor – we are barking up the wrong tree. Let me explain. Over the last couple of years my colleague, the economist Andrew Scott, and I have been asking a simple question ‘What happens when most people live to 100 years’. It’s been a fascinating exploration. One undeniable truth is that if you live to 100 then you will probably need to work into your 80s. Now there is no doubt that over the course of a long working life money is indeed crucial – no one wants to look forward to an old age lived in poverty. So money is a valuable asset that a company can give to an employee.
However, across a long life this tangible asset, whilst important, has to be balanced by equally important intangible assets. It seems to me that chief amongst these crucial intangible assets is the type of work an employee is given to perform. Work that is valuable both now and as a hedge against the future has three crucial elements:
- It is interesting and allows workers to engage their mind and creativity
- It has developmental potential – particularly to in terms of capabilities that are ‘portable’ in the sense that they can be used beyond the current job
- It is non-routine so is unlikely to be substituted in the short term by robotics or Artificial Intelligence
For the sake of simplicity let’s call this ‘good work’. Now let’s play a mind game. Let’s assume that a leader in a corporation acknowledges that the intangible asset of ‘good work’ is as valuable to an employee as the tangible asset of money. If this were the case, what would we expect to see happening within the corporation? Here are five ideas:
- We would expect jobs to be analysed with regards to the extent that they are composed of tasks that are interesting, developmental and non-routine. We could even imagine that these job characteristics are rated against a common currency – let’s call this unit a ‘tang’.
- So when an employer is advertising a job, they are able to show both the financial assets the job is valued at (salary, bonus, stock options etc.) and also its ‘tang’ assets (interest, developmental potential, non-routine)
- When an employee is deciding on whether to take a job, they can balance the tangible and intangible assets it creates. They can decide, for example, that they are prepared to take a higher ‘tang’ rated job at a certain point in their career, even if the salary is lower. Or indeed take a higher paid job whilst acknowledging that the ‘tang’ value is low.
- It could be that managers who are particularly skilled at designing jobs for their team that have a high ‘tang’ value are celebrated for this sculpting skill.
- We might expect that if the ‘tang’ value of a job falls below a certain level then the whole job has to be re-designed to increase the ‘tang value’ by adding tasks that are interesting, developmental or non-routine. This re-design could be initiated by the manager, or indeed by the worker who is performing the job and who is encouraged to broaden the scope of the job to envelope more ‘tang’ rich activities.
Right now it is still money that dominates the negotiated relationship between an employee and employer. Let’s widen the conversation to include an equally important asset – good work. Perhaps by understanding the value of work with as much finesse as we currently understand the value of reward systems, we can begin to give employees a better choice about the deal they want to strike.