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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

I notice that when I ask people how much time they spend thinking together with colleagues, reflecting on what they’ve learned from their most recent efforts, they just stare back blankly at me. It’s getting hard to remember what it felt like to manage reflectively — to take time to figure things out together and to learn from experience. With our frantic pace, we’re screaming past one another (and more easily provoked and angered by each other), so we’re losing the one resource, community, that gets humans through hard times. For me, community — people working together and knowing that others are there to support them — is a critically important but largely invisible resource. In most situations (think of natural disasters, family crises, wars, and dislocations), community is the only thing that gets us through. In a time like this, of economic and emotional distress, every organization needs leaders who can help people regain their capacity, energy, and desire to contribute. And this is only accomplished when people work together in community, not in isolation.

But community is hard to find in most organizations. Not only do many leaders deny that this capacity is important, but they’re actually destroying it through their current management approaches.

S+B: For example...?
I have worked with many forward-thinking business leaders over the years. Now, I notice they’re increasingly frustrated. They can no longer motivate people in ways that they know will work. Instead, they’re being driven by imperatives from their boards and bosses. They find themselves doing things that feel meaningless or that waste time — or that they know from experience won’t lead anywhere good. They have to implement continuous cutbacks, and to produce more results with fewer resources. They feel terribly pressured yet believe they have no choice but to respond to these demands.

One of my good friends led the turnaround of his company, one of the world’s top brands. He did it by engaging people: inculcating a strong sense of values, giving people latitude to make decisions and design projects, ensuring that learning was prevalent. Now that he’s retired, that’s all been destroyed. The new leadership is highly restrictive and controlling, using fear as a primary motivator. As a result, the company has been struggling in this current economic climate. And of course it becomes a reinforcing cycle: The worse the financials, the stricter the controls become.

In most companies, we do not have (and I believe won’t have for the foreseeable future) the money to fund the work that we have to do. Leaders have two choices. One, they can tap the invisible resource of people who become self-motivated when invited to engage together. This approach has well-documented results in higher productivity, innovation, and motivation, but it requires a shift from a fear-based approach to a belief in the capacity of most people to contribute, to be creative, and to be motivated internally. Alternatively, they can continue to slash and burn, tightening controls, and using coercive methods to enforce the cuts. This destroys capacity, yet it is the more common approach these days.

S+B: Some might argue that these cuts are reshaping the organization back down to what it should have been in the first place.
I would love it if that were true. Executives could be using this turbulence to shift their business models, redesign their HR systems, change how they motivate people, and rethink their own leadership. But I don’t see that happening. Instead, too many people report that mean-spiritedness is on the rise in their companies. And there seems to be a growing climate of disrespect for individual experience and competence — hiring and firing decisions are made on the basis of finding the cheapest source of labor (and I include executives here). If someone can be found to do the job for less money, because they have less experience and fewer skills, that person gets hired.

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