Organizational Self-Awareness and Learning

Self-awareness is a critical life and leadership skill that means different things to different people. I used to think that it had to do with just being aware of my thoughts and my tendency to think a certain way.  I believed, therefore, that I had high self-awareness.  However, self-awareness also includes having some knowledge of your subconscious choices, viewpoints, biases, and strengths.  For example, why do I gravitate to certain choices or beliefs?  Are those really the right behaviors and perspectives?   How do those actions and viewpoints affect others?

Taking the time to reflect on these questions and internalize feedback – both positive and negative, formal and informal – is called self-reflective awareness (SRA).  Failure to periodically assess and re-evaluate means I’m operating more on habit than any kind of conscious decision.  A recent blog by Henriques does an excellent job of breaking down this self-reflective process, and describes it as metacognition.  Personally, I find that a regular reflective practice is important in sustaining my self-awareness as I and the environment evolve over time.

The same is true for organizations.  Like people, organizations have a history that influences their self- and world-view, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, preferences and biases.  Organizations have their own “mental processes” that lead to learning and decision-making:  surveys, informal feedback, organizational metrics, etc.   Organizations that consider a narrow set of data, and fail to reflect and seriously consider feedback – both internally and externally, formal and informal – are just going through the motions of learning and growth.    Like Henriques’ student example, an organization with low self-reflective awareness (SRA) is likely to have a superficial understanding of how to solve problems and blame their failures or shortcomings on external or isolated factors. An organization that has high SRA is more likely to take a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to problem solving and growth and has the courage to face some hard truths.

What would organizational SRA look like?  We can start by looking at low SRA activities, which includes crisis management as standard operating procedure, incremental strategic plans that don’t have a clear vision, a culture of punishing and problem-finding instead of nurturing success and growth, and prioritizing thoughtless organizational metrics that reflect a limited view of organizational success.  Low SRA organizations will have a disconnect between their mission and stated brand, and their actual performance.  For example, some organizations may claim to value diversity, customers or their employees, but the numbers and culture may say otherwise.  The organization may choose to ignore that disconnect by excluding such measures in their data collection, write off dissatisfied customers and employees as anomalies, and rationalize problems as localized, but their stakeholders will notice.

A high organizational SRA will have strong alignment in mission, values, brand and their products and output.  It will have an authentic vision for its future with priorities, policies, procedures and practices are aligned across the organization.  It will regularly reflect as a whole through its strategic planning process and integrate outcomes and feedback to learn and improve.  For example, unpleasant surprises, such as under-performing sales, lawsuits, poor feedback, or a key employee quitting unexpectedly, are taken seriously.  The organization learns from that setback, asking hard questions and facing difficult truths.  It examines gaps between its mission and behavior, and has the courage to listen deeply to tough feedback.  It encourages individuals to take risks and learn from the failures instead of punishing them.  It examines best practices, employs them, and then may even try to raise the bar.  It has leaders who have high SRA, and who encourage SRA in others.

What kind of organization do you work for?  What kind would you rather work for?  It’s easy to see that a high SRA organization will attract and keep the best talent.  How are you contributing to your organization’s SRA and your own?

Fine Tuning Engagement

After taking a break from my usual ‘fun’ exercise classes for a more intensive, targeted regimen, I was so grateful and relieved to be back in yoga class this weekend. I love the really tangible benefits of yoga – the deep stretching and the strength building. I’m sore in ways that never seem to happen with traditional weights or exercise classes.

Best of all is yoga’s mindfulness practice. For those of you who may not be practitioners, the goal of yoga is to be deeply engaged in these poses that, on the surface, often look quite easy. While in the pose, you are supposed to focus on each of your muscles to make sure they are in the right position and appropriately flexed or relaxed, as the case may be.   For example, your hand(s) and foot/feet are generally supposed to be parallel to the length of the mat, your hand engaged, palm pressed flat to the floor, your feet engaged without gripping your toes to the mat, and your quads also engaged, lifting your kneecaps. You’re also supposed to deepen the stretching poses at any given time, so if they ever feel easy or comfortable, you’re not doing it right (my apologies to any really serious yogis out there for any inaccuracies, I’m still a relative novice).

In other words, if I’m not sweating, disheveled, and feeling like I just ran a marathon by the time I leave, then I haven’t really been doing my job.

However, the temptation is to go to some effort to get dressed in the yoga gear de rigueur, get out my nice mat, and to make it look effortless.   I can float through the poses and feel accomplished, without really exerting myself. I might have a sense of accomplishment when I leave when in reality I just went through the motions. I can leave looking fresh and still stylish and reward my ‘efforts’ with a cookie or splurge on a latte. In truth, the only person I’m really fooling in this case is myself.

Yoga is just like life. I can go through the motions, making sure I ‘look good’ as I do so, or I can Lean In, a la Sheryl Sandberg.   Where am I not challenging myself? Where am I settling or coasting while telling myself I’m accomplishing something? Where am I avoiding pain and therefore avoiding benefit and growth? Where am I literally just posing through my life as I’m missing the best parts? How am I using that complacency to actually pat myself on the back?

It’s hard work and it ain’t always pretty. But I know I’ll come out of it stronger and more resilient and flexible as a result.  Namaste.


The Self-Awareness Paradox

I love to read articles on leadership and positive psychology, especially the ones with the lists of what to do and not to do (apparently I’m not alone since they’re so prevalent). I’m usually looking for new ideas on how to do something better, especially something I feel I can integrate and implement.

It can likewise be satisfying checking off the things I am already doing. “Listen with empathy.” Check. “Communicate upwards.” Check.   “Be inclusive.” Check. However, as I tick through those lists, I have this vague, uncomfortable feeling that maybe I’m ticking off stuff I shouldn’t be. I feel that I’m a good listener and inclusive, but am I really?

This is the paradox of self-awareness. By definition, if I have poor self-awareness, I don’t really have a good conception of certain aspects of my behavior and thoughts and how they affect or are perceived by others.   I believe I have pretty good (far from perfect though) self-awareness.  Indeed, I will always have blind spots and – like everyone – a tendency to over-estimate my qualities and virtues.

However, I have good BS consultants. When I say to Chris, “I think I’m pretty good at X,” he’ll either laugh uproariously or concede, “yes, you are.” My BFF is the same way (but thankfully, without the laughter). I don’t really know a good way around this self-awareness paradox except consulting with a loving and wise advisor.   Even this is not perfect because everyone has different opinions and perceptions, and what might work for some may not work for others. And my consultants are wildly biased in my favor. That being said, I also don’t have to be all things to all people, but I do at least want to measure up in the eyes of those that I respect the most.  If I fail that sniff test then I know I have an opportunity for growth in that area.

I don’t feel badly about this personal challenge. This is the nature of the human struggle and I’m no different from anyone else in this respect. Having the humility and openness to even question one’s own self-concept is a great start and an ongoing practice.  The joy is in that journey of growth, not in the belief that I have arrived at some idealized and false sense of who I should be.  Having faith in the value of our journey of growth is something I can check off with confidence.

Focus on Followers

As a society we seem to have a fascination with leaders, and what they should be doing and thinking.  This focus misses perhaps the most important element of leadership: the followers.   This oversight is the equivalent of the clinician failing to consider his patient, the teacher failing to consider his student, a parent failing to consider his child, or the server failing to consider his customer.

So, what is it about followers that leaders should focus on?

In Strengths Based Leadership, Rath and Conchie remind us that followers have 4 primary needs: trust, stability, hope, and compassion. They want to trust their leader to do what they say they will do. They want to know the leader will provide support, strength and core values, and that they can be counted on. They want to know that there will be guidance and direction that will make them feel hopeful and enthusiastic about the future. They also want to know that their leaders care for them as a person, just as they would their friends and family.

In other words, this construct from Rath and Conchie is consistent with servant leadership, where effective leaders focus on what the followers need to be successful and productive. In short, this view aims to inspire and support the followers.

In contrast, managers are focused more on managing work, having power and control, reducing risk, and acting in an authoritarian manner with subordinates.   The emphasis is on the task or on the manager himself, not the person who is being managed.

The leader’s job is to create hope and stability, earn trust and have compassion for the followers.  Leaders who expect people to follow them while focusing on their own needs may have difficulty eliciting high quality performance. A leader with poor self-awareness may then blame the followers or subordinates for being disengaged and unmotivated. Now the focus may shift to the follower’s failings, a situation likely to deepen disengagement.

This scenario is not likely to have a good ending. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. An effective leader creates change, especially in the face of challenge. That change may have to start with the leader herself.  After all, if you can’t change yourself, how can you create change in others?

Pope Francis-Style Leadership

Even though I’ve been an atheist most of my life (now, spiritual), I’ve been glued to the coverage about Pope Francis’ visit to the US. This 78-year old man has maintained a grueling schedule but continues to light up every time he greets his flock. In contrast, I couldn’t help noticing that when doing the handshake and photo op, Francis seems to fade. His preference for the common man over power and influence is no act, folks.

This genuine humility and concern for the common man almost makes me want to join a church for the first time in my life. Apparently, I am not alone in terms of the secular appeal of the Pope; 63% of people with “no religion” approve of Francis.  At a worldwide 70% approval rating, this Pope seems to have captured the goodwill and attention of the world. Though it is unclear whether Francis’ popularity will reverse the decline in the Catholic population, polls have shown that the strength of affiliation among current Catholics is significantly higher than during the pre-Francis reigns. He also has stabilized the retention rate for Catholics which has been declining for 4 decades (see this article for more information).

Francis’ universal appeal is noteworthy given that religious differences, even between sects, continue to fuel discord and war across the globe. Other leaders that claim to be guided by their religious beliefs often divide, whereas Francis unites as he espouses Catholic principles.

Francis is a leader unlike any I have seen in my lifetime. Francis is accomplishing what seems to be the impossible: bringing people together from all backgrounds and beliefs. He is deeply authentic: he lives by his values and morals in both word and deed. He is the first leader that makes me believe 100% that he is here for me, even my atheist-leaning self.

Consider Francis as a model for business or politics. What would be the impact of this type of leadership on how employees/customers/voters feel about an organization and their jobs? What would you do for people or organizations that lived by the doctrine that your wellbeing was their first priority? What would our society look like if we genuinely embraced that belief?

Businesses and even our government often operate by a mentality that focus on profit, money, or power

Francis, the Servant Leader

Francis, the Servant Leader

regardless of the cost or consequences to the customer, community, employee or environment. Francis is showing us that an organization can be successful and appealing, even to those outside the target demographic, when it focuses on and prioritizes people and the Earth.

I’m not saying this type of leadership is easy. As much as I would like to emulate Francis, I do not have his purity of heart. I may not wear the Gucci papal slippers but I’d at least try them on. Dine with Obama and Nancy Pelosi? For sure! However, I can learn as much as I can from this extraordinary leader and find my own way of living by his message.

The Pope has been ending his speeches with, “if you are not a believer, wish me well.” Francis, I wish you well, am cheering for you, and will do all that I can to follow your example of leading with love and authenticity.

The Work Double-Standard

Research shows that we are all hypocrites.   In our personal lives it’s easy to detect our hypocrisy any time we criticize another.   At work, our hypocrisy may look a little different, but appears to occur with both employers and employees.

Employers may:

  • Expect loyalty but downsize you in a heartbeat
  • Expect you to do whatever it takes to get the job done but not provide the training/resources to do that job right.
  • Expect you to be on time in the AM but don’t notice if you work overtime. Oh and by the way, you better make sure you report your annual leave whenever you need a few hours off.
  • Expect your hardest and best work which may not be recognized or rewarded. However, your mistakes will be pointed out immediately.
  • Expect you to have a good attitude even if they ignore/complain/criticize the organization or its employees.
  • Have unrealistic expectations then get frustrated when morale is down.
  • Ask you to take on additional duties or responsibility but then tell you that you haven’t earned a raise, new title or promotion.
  • Tell you there isn’t money for raises/bonuses or for the supplies/new position that is needed…but there’s plenty of money when it comes to their own raise, bonus or needed resources.
  • Expect you to be open to constructive criticism and improvement while ignoring their own.
  • Complain about the laziness or incompetence of an employee, but when that person quits, divide her job into two positions.
  • Avoid promoting from within citing a lack of qualified applicants, but also fail to groom people for leadership positions.
  • Complain that employees don’t appreciate their job but rarely thank the employees when they do a good job.
  • Complain about a situation that they’ve either created or have the power to change.
  • Expect employees to make sacrifices for the organization but won’t go out of their way to help the employee.
  • Have contempt for the employees but want to be treated with respect.
  • Criticize what’s actually good practice for productivity (taking breaks, naps and socializing with co-workers), while ignoring real issues (bullying, harassment, poor fiscal management, poor leadership/management skills, safety issues, toxic employees).

Employees are guilty too. They may:

  • Complain about the status quo but not support the change that does happen, take action to create change, or support the change efforts of others.
  • Hate their job but then are surprised if they get either fired or a poor evaluation.
  • Treat continued employment, raise or bonus as an entitlement, but quality work as optional.
  • Want job security but will leave the minute a better job is available.
  • Want thanks, praise and recognition without ever thanking or recognizing their employer.
  • Expect the job to be not too demanding but also expect a raise or promotion.
  • Complain that the boss doesn’t understand what they do but also complain about things they don’t understand.
  • Gripe about the lack of communication but not read organizational emails and newsletters.
  • Have contempt for the organization or boss but want to be treated with respect.

In other words, pointing your finger at work is really not different from your personal life.   Before you open your mouth to complain about someone else, consider how you might be similarly guilty. It’s a hypocrisy-busting exercise that can produce personal insights and a better attitude, though not as fun as complaining.  I guess you’ll have to settle for socializing by the water cooler.

Trust at Work

Trust is an important element of motivation, so creating trust in the workplace is critical for employees to perform at their best.   Transparency and open communication is essential for trust. But it’s so much more.

When I was a kid, back during the last Ice Age, employees had an implied and actual contract with their employer. If they were loyal to the organization, the organization would be loyal to them. They had generous pensions and could trust that they could retire comfortably after a certain number of years of service without worry.

That concept seems laughable and naïve these days since the pension seems to have caused financial ruin for many companies. Though the model is not financially sustainable, this idea of a reciprocal relationship between the employee and employer also seems to be as outdated as the dinosaur.   In other words, what the modern contract seems to amount to is: You work as hard as possible, and take on incredible stress and responsibility with little or no support. In return, I give you a paycheck and maybe some benefits. I may or may not treat you well, help you or recognize your efforts.   I may or may not help you grow as an individual or care about your personal or professional well-being. I will dispose of you as soon as I think it will benefit the organization. If the time comes when I think it’s time for you to go, I may simply escort you from the building without so much as a “thanks for your service.” And for that, you better show your appreciation to me and make this job your first priority.

And employers wonder why employees don’t work harder or show a better attitude.

Granted, this contract may be implicit since few managers will actually say something like that. But just like I do a terrible job of trying to appear happy and friendly when I’m actually grouchy or upset, words, tone, and actions belie true intentions.   Being transparent and openly communicating about this You Are A Cog in the Machine philosophy will not improve trust. It will improve disengagement and resentment.

In my opinion, the difference between a manager and a leader is whether they treat employees and colleagues well given the realities of the modern workplace. Treating someone well does not mean you never, ever fire or discipline them. It simply means that when that time comes, you treat them as you wish to be treated. Treating someone well also does not mean that you constantly praise and affirm them. Instead, it means being authentic and true with your praise and reward, and not because you want something from them.   The Arbinger Institute (Leadership and Self-Deception and teaches this philosophy about doing business either by treating others as objects – an obstacle, irrelevant, or a means to an end, or as people – whose needs, wants and desires are as important as your own. Until one learns the difference and behaves accordingly, I believe true leadership will continue to evade them.