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 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: David Kantor

The goal of structural dynamics is to increase communicative competency, which means every member of the team becomes capable of reading the room. They know which interventions will improve the conversations. They ideally have full knowledge of the limits of their own repertoire so that when a speech action is called for, if they can’t do it themselves, they can call on someone else who is capable of the act.

S+B: Is there a person alive who can speak eloquently in all 36 speech act combinations?
I think so. And, by the way, this skill is the road to collective intelligence. The theory says that when a team is capable of communicative competency, there is an exponential leap to effectiveness. By becoming more competent, the team accelerates its ability to define new outcomes, new products, and so on.

It’s a bit like improvisational theater. In fact, when I first began putting this theory together, I read a lot about how actors study their craft, and how they are taught to improvise. The theater is fascinating, but it’s not effective by itself as a model for intervention, because it’s locked in to a very small group of activities.

S+B: In your book, you also describe a fourth dimension—the heroic modes, which come out only when there’s a crisis.
A perceived crisis. When the stakes are raised through stress or difficulty, people shift into more urgent, less thoughtful forms of conversation. Someone prone to affect shifts to being an advocate: from “I feel” to “we should,” arguing for passion’s sake. A power-oriented person becomes like a prosecutor: from “let’s do” to “you must do,” forcing others to perform. And a meaning-oriented person becomes an adjudicator: from “I think” to “I decide,” imposing a framework of logic.

If the stakes get raised even higher, these stances become even more pronounced; they turn into what I call “heroic modes.” The advocate is now a protector, doing whatever must be done to shield others from harm. The power-oriented prosecutor becomes a fixer, out to conquer all enemies and win at all costs. And the adjudicator retreats into being a survivor, intent only on manifesting the cause and getting through all the oppression and aggression.

Everyone unconsciously favors one of these heroic modes. They’re all morally neutral; none is more virtuous or vicious than the others. But they lead people, especially leaders, in directions that are counterproductive. At the start of a crisis, people enter the heroic modes in mild form, but they can gradually become more extreme: Fixers become aggressive, protectors feel wronged, survivors withdraw and endure. When left unchecked, they lead to the same basic attitude: The ends justify the means. And then the crisis accelerates. The fixers discover they can’t win, or can’t solve every problem; the survivors discover they can’t really withdraw; and the protectors find they can’t keep everyone from getting hurt. So they start to blame one another.

General George Patton was a classic fixer—and a hero until after World War II. Then all the stories about his vicious side emerged, about him slapping soldiers and so on.

S+B: What’s your advice for the leader—not the professional intervenor, but the person actually leading a group in a company?
There’s always a shadow side to human behavior. These shadows come from people’s childhood stories—from ways in which they weren’t loved. Greed is one kind of shadow, especially when it involves lack of care about anyone else. The crisis is often a manifestation of these shadows, and the enterprise and the industry will be threatened if the shadows are not contained. At that moment, a hero is called for: a leader who can find a way to transcend his or her own shadows, and also transcend the shadow-driven behavior of the systems around him or her.

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