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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Fearlessness: The Last Organizational Change Strategy

One company in Australia developed an extraordinary program on leadership, involving coaching and personal awareness. The CEO got a lot of credit for his involvement and support. But then after they got it up and running, it moved to human resources for the roll-out, and suddenly the internal clients started saying, “What? A three-day program? I can only give you one day.” Some people even asked for half a day. So the designers said, “OK, we’ll give you a one-day program, but you won’t get the same results.” And by compressing it that way, the entire value of the program is lost.

Another factor is the intensifying of communications technology. E-mail has given us a 10-fold increase in our work and a 100-fold decrease in our ability to pay attention. Last year a study came out about the American worker, and the results showed that people could tell you when their day began but not when it ended. We are so overwhelmed by information that we’re becoming numb. E-mail also takes away the need to meet face to face, which has caused a lot of misunderstandings and ultimately affects relationships. Today people deal with tough issues by e-mail even if they’re down the hall from each other. It’s also led to behaviors such as people using their Blackberrys or phones to e-mail or text message under the table at meetings. The most common posture now is the downward glance, whether it’s in meetings or elsewhere.

There is also an intense focus on short-term results at the expense of all else. There is pressure to get projects done faster with quicker turnaround times and unreasonable deadlines. We’ve entered the era of believing that a client or boss can just ask for things sooner without losing any quality. The thinking today is that you don’t have to worry about how a decision will affect long-term success — just think short-term and it somehow will work itself out. Employees are now evaluated on short-term metrics that don’t really measure anything of value for the longevity of the company. These measures get tied to incentives and rewards and start to transform behavior in a very negative way.

S+B: And you’re saying that all of this leads to worse performance in the end.
If leaders took the time to engage people instead of clamping down on them, not only would employees perform better, they’d also be more innovative and focused. It would lead to less stress, less illness, and more productivity. All the actions right now are pushing the American workforce toward increasing levels of disengagement. People show up to work to collect a paycheck. The Gallup Organization did a survey that indicates how people are feeling about their workplace. Last year, more than 70 percent of the American workforce felt disengaged, up from around 33 percent in 2000. That’s what happens if you squeeze fewer people to do more work, give them shorter deadlines, measure their work using meaningless metrics, and, to top it off, treat them with profound levels of disrespect.

S+B: If leaders know better, why do these kinds of behaviors persist?
I think the main factor is that the leaders themselves don’t know how to relate to uncertainty. They don’t know how to deal with a future that they can’t plan for. They can’t even plan for their own future: In the past few years, there have been record levels of CEO firings. Meanwhile, the people who recruit and select chief executives cling to the belief that one person should have the answer. And when the new CEO doesn’t have it — because no one person does — they just go for another, more heroic leader. These are very powerful dynamics that reinforce one another and push organizations in the wrong direction.

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  1. John Jones, DeAnne Aguirre, and Matthew Calderone, “10 Principles of Change Management,” s+b Resilience Report, 4/15/04: Techniques to help companies with large-scale transformation. Click here.
  2. Margaret J. Wheatley, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (Berrett-Koehler, 2007): A collection of practice-focused articles on organization, leadership, management, and social change. Click here.
  3. Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Berrett-Koehler, 2006): Wheatley explores how quantum physics, game theory, and science can be applied to leadership strategies and the structure of groups. Click here.
  4. The Berkana Institute Web site: A not-for-profit global leadership organization founded by Margaret Wheatley. Click here.
  5. Margaret Wheatley’s Web site: Includes links to her articles and books. Click here.
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