By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

When we view the corporate landscape through the lens of performance and sustainability, there is little doubt that we are living in challenging times. At no point in our history has there been such a pressure on outcomes and performance. Simultaneously we are also challenged to ensure the long-term viability of our organisations, the wellness and fulfilment of those who work for them, while also working to mitigate the ecological issues facing our planet.

Understandably many organisations are becoming progressively more performance driven; forever increasing emphasis and value on measurable outcomes, at the expense of culture, relationships, connection and dare I say it – humanity. There is no doubt that organisations need to have a firm focus on operational excellence and meeting their KPI’s and milestones, but somewhere along the way, the strategies for achieving these outcomes sacrificed the things that matter most.

The irony is that most of the leaders of these organisations believe in the value of creating a positive culture. They see the benefit of building long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships and they genuinely respect and value their people. How then do we explain the increasing prioritisation of outcomes, at the expense of culture and relationships? This dichotomous behaviour is often the result of one single flawed assumption; that building a care-based culture is mutually exclusive with delivering high performance.

We’ll blow that assumption out of the water in a moment, but first, what is a care-based culture?

A care-based culture places a premium on culture, relationships and humanity. It views and treats a team member as a whole person, not just as their organisational role and function. A care-based culture reminds us that people come with their own hopes, dreams and aspirations as well as their insecurities and fears.

This does somewhat complicate the management function. Managing someone’s hopes, dreams and fears, as well as their role based performance, is far more challenging than simply focusing on the results they deliver as part of their role.

But what if managers really saw the value in building a care-based culture and set about developing the additional skills needed to manage their people in a more holistic way?  Instead of trying to compartmentalise their lives by drawing boundaries between their work self and non-work self, team members would be supported to bring their whole selves to work, and can thereby gift all their talents to the tasks at hand.

Think of the benefits! Care-based cultures lead to greater levels of staff motivation and engagement – and people work harder and smarter when they are engaged in the task. When teams are able to see and support the humanity of each of their members, tighter bonds are formed and a culture of shared accountability created. This culture of care and humanity then flows into the manner in which team members deal with customers, clients and other key stakeholders – and it doesn’t take a genius to work out how this would be received.  When people turn up to work as their whole selves, it also enables them to be more creative and innovative by using more of their life experience, feelings and intuition in order to resolve complex challenges.

Finally perhaps most importantly, organisations that place a strategic emphasis on building a care-based culture not only perform at the very highest levels, the efficiency of the process by which that performance is driven makes it significantly more long-lasting and sustainable than being performance driven for the sake of performance itself.

For most of us, including myself, this is a radical paradigm shift. Until recently I have always advocated that leaders reinforce the boundaries pertaining to an individual’s organisational role, and support those individuals to manage the aspects of their lives that fall outside that role themselves. But in recent times I have been repeatedly astounded by the unexpected high performance that flows, almost as a side effect, from building a care-based culture.


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

Operational Excellence means that organisations have the capability to deliver a particular project or task to the required specifications and standards, on time and on budget. Whether or not an organisation achieves operational excellence by meeting its KPI’s is important. However, what is more important is how an organisation approaches the challenge of moving towards operational excellence. So, in building a healthier organisation, the old business adage of the process being more important than the outcome, is definitely true. In this case, the how relates primarily to the efficiency by which an organisation achieves a particular set of results.

Efficiency can be defined as the amount of resources that a business consumes to produce a particular outcome relative to the benefit of that outcome. In an organisational context, there are three key categories of resources — money, time and people. Obviously, these three categories of resources have significant overlap. The more staff on a particular project, the more money it costs the business in wages, but hopefully, the less time it takes. While all three resource categories are important, I believe the most valuable one is time. This is because if money is misspent or lost, it can be made again. Staff members can leave their roles and be replaced, and staff that have a reduced motivation or disengage from a particular task can be re-engaged. Therefore, as important as money and staff are in terms of the resources a business has access to, they can be considered renewable resources. In contrast, time is a non-renewable resource. Once time is spent, that minute, that hour, that day cannot be renewed or recreated. Unfortunately, there are no Mulligans (a golf term used when the golfer is given a second chance to play their shot) or Groundhog days (in reference to the cult movie with Bill Murray) for spent time. Thus, the efficiency at which organisations use their time is probably the most important ingredient in delivering operational excellence and therby showing how healthy that organisation is.

The True North Learning Organisational Health model is designed to do one thing — increase the efficiency which an organisation utilises its resources — time, money and staff, but especially time.

For example, we have worked with clients at their strategic planning days where a list of ten actionable items has been developed; each one of which has the potential to improve the business and its effectiveness in some aspect. Three months later, only a small minority, if any, of these strategies have been actioned in accordance with the implementation plan formulated at the strategic planning meeting. Hence, the one day those eight senior managers took and the associated resources have been effectively wasted. If we do the sums, 8 managers on an eight hour strategic planning day, the cost of transport, venue hire, catering, etc, probably thousands of dollars all for just about zero return. Those managers may well have taken that time and money and gone to the pub — at least they would have had a good time. The return on investment of those resources would effectively have been the same. I know this sounds a bit harsh, and I do admit that I am being a little tongue in cheek in order to make a point.  Most of us have been in teams or worked in organisations where creative and talented minds come up with amazing strategies, but because of a lack of capacity somewhere in the organisational system, these strategies never come to fruition. Therefore, the strategies do not provide a benefit to the organisation (or a return on investment on the resources that it took to create them). In fact, one could argue that not only does this have a minimal return on investment, but it actually also has a negative impact on organisational effectiveness. This is because when senior managers invest their time, ideas, passion and experience into developing a strategic plan only to repeatedly experience those items not coming to fruition, it builds the degree of hopelessness and cynicism in the effectiveness of their organisation. This then affects the extent to which those managers are prepared to invest themselves at future strategic planning days.

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

It is hard to imagine that a conversation can build more effective organisations. However, what we observe time and time again is that individuals and organisations that take the time and develop the capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations actually outperform those competitors who place less of a strategic emphasis on this skill.

To be honest, and also slightly more transparent, I am not talking about an average ‘chatting around the water cooler’ kind of conversation. What I am talking about is when and how we have strategic and reflective conversations. In some management literature, these are referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘robust’ conversations, but I think these terms underestimate the potential benefit these conversations hold.

The ability to have strategic and reflective conversations is one of the most effective ways to engage stakeholders, give role-based feedback and align team members to performance and behavioural expectations. In short, it is probably the most effective way to build a culture of shared accountability within a team or organisation.

However, what we commonly observe is team members, especially managers, running away from these conversations as fast as they possibly can. There are numerous reasons for this behaviour, but most of them fall under one or more of three categories.

Firstly, most people have some degree of conflict aversion. Let’s face it, any normal and sane person, when faced with a choice, is going to choose the option with the least potential for conflict. At the risk of being too psychological, this aversion sometimes originates back in our formative years. It occurs when individuals grow up in a highly conflictual environment which over time reduces their tolerance for further conflict. Paradoxically, it can also occur in individuals who grow up in relatively harmonious environments. This is because, despite the idyllic-ness of a happy and harmonious household, it does not build skills and capacity in having these more challenging conversations.

Secondly, many managers feel under-skilled in the area of conflict management, and it is often for the reasons in the previous paragraph that this area of their development has been avoided or neglected. However, dealing with conflict and having a strategic and reflective conversation are simply skills. And, like any skill, the more you do it, the more you practice it, and the more coaching and support you get on it, the better and more comfortable with it you become.

Thirdly, and finally, some managers feel they do not have the time to have these conversations. I view most things in business from a cost versus benefit standpoint. However, one difference in my version of cost versus benefit is that I believe in viewing an organisation as a holistic system. In other words, we cannot just examine cost versus benefit from a profit or performance viewpoint. We also have to include more intangible costs and benefits. These include such things as levels of trust and engagement of key staff and stakeholders, the morale of team members, the well-being of the individuals within the organisation, the environment and perhaps the planet as a whole. It is only when we can appreciate the cost or benefit to these more intangible and less measurable aspects of our organisation that we can begin to ascertain the real benefit of these conversations.

For example, we have observed on numerous occasions that a one-hour strategic and reflective conversation have a benefit (or return on investment of resources — time, money, personnel) in terms of engagement, role clarity, motivation, performance and ethical behaviour, that far supersedes that initial one hour ‘investment’. Conversely, we have also observed numerous examples, unfortunately in greater numbers than my previous sentence, where the lack of a strategic and reflective conversation has deleterious and sometimes disastrous consequences for an organisation.

The irony is, in our experience, most managers are astute enough to know when one of these conversations needs to occur. The real question is: are they prepared to endure short-term discomfort for the long-term benefit of the organisation?

In summary, to build organisational capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations:

  • Support managers and staff to work on their own psychology around their individual conflict aversion and lead by example.
  • Invest in training and skills development programs so that members feel equipped with the required skill set in order to have these conversations.
  • Be disciplined. Develop the discipline to realise that a one-hour conversation, as difficult and challenging as it may be, could potentially save you and/or the organisation a far less desirable outcome.

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

In challenging economic times, it is imperative that organisations increase the effectiveness of how they train their people. Hence, organisations need to ensure that they get a significant return on the resources – time, money and staff – that they invest in training and development initiatives. We have found that organisations can increase the effectiveness of these programs by asking one key question, but more about that later.

From an organisational context, we see the purpose of training and development is to bridge performance gaps. Performance gaps (hereafter simply referred to as “gaps”) are the gaps between the current levels of performance (both team and individual) and the ideal or desired levels of performance.

One of the keys in designing and delivering effective organisational development programs is knowing which kind of gap the program intends to bridge. From our experience, there are two kinds of gaps. The first gap is a “technical gap”. This a gap created by the lack of skills or knowledge required to do the technical aspects of their role to the desired level of performance. These skills and knowledge are usually specific to the roles and are generally not transferrable to other roles where a different specialised skill set is required.

The second kind of gap is a “behavioural gap”. This is the gap between the way individuals and teams actually behave and the ideal set of behaviours. By “behave”, we are referring to what some may call the “soft skills” of business – it’s how people communicate, take responsibility and ownership of outcomes, how they build trust, have difficult conversations, collaborate, resolve conflict, etc. It’s all the aspects that go into making the culture of a high performance workplace. Behavioural skills are generally transferrable to a different role, even if the technical skills required are no longer applicable.

The key differentiator is how we train people in technical skills versus behavioural skills. Technical skills are generally better developed by what we would call traditional or didactic learning. This means attending lectures, reading, writing, research, and having knowledge imparted to you. Behavioural skills, on the other hand, are not effectively developed via didactic learning. This is because knowledge alone does not make a significant and sustainable change in behaviours. If knowledge alone was sufficient to change behaviours, people would not smoke, be overweight, drive too fast or end up bankrupt. Most people know that they shouldn’t do these behaviours and most know strategies on how to avoid them.

The most effective way to change behaviours is for people to have the opportunity to reflect on these behaviours. Via reflection, individuals can better understand why they behave the way they do, they can see the impact of those behaviours and also gain an awareness of the situations and triggers which elicit those behaviours. In short, the ability and opportunity to reflect on these behaviours is what builds people’s awareness of them. And it is only via awareness that behaviours can be modified or improved in a sustainable way.

Hence, the most effective way of bridging behavioural gaps is Experiential Learning. Experiential Learning usually starts with an activity designed to recreate the desired learning context. Then, via a facilitated debrief, participants are able to reflect on and therefore gain insight and awareness of their behaviours during the activity. Finally, participants make learning links between their behaviours with the activity and how they behave back in the office. They can ask, “How can I take what I learned during the activity and debrief and apply it back to my role within the organisation?”

Therefore, the key question to ask to ensure that training and development programs have the desired outcome is: “Is the performance gap this training is intending to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”

As an example, I was recently working with a team of project managers. One of the challenges that they faced was their tendency to, as a group, rush through vital decision making processes because they wanted to quickly get to the outcome they wanted. Unsurprisingly, the rushed decision making process led to poor decisions and as a result, they spend more resources “cleaning up their mess” than they spent making the actual decision.

In designing their previous training, the assumption was made that the gap was a technical one and therefore the training consisted of the technical aspects of project management. This, however, did not change the dynamic within the team.

As we observed them through a series of Experiential Learning activities and debriefed their behaviours after the activity, what became clear was that under pressure, their trust in each other diminished and therefore their ability to sit in the tension of the unknown without a clear direction was compromised. As a result, they rushed through those parts of the decision making process, simply to escape the discomfort of the unknown and subsequent lack of trust and cohesion. This highlighted their behavioural gap and therefore changed the question we as trainers asked. The question was no longer how do we provide more training on their project management skills, but how do we built a culture that is more robust and functions at a higher level in the face of pressure and an unknown outcome?

This example highlights the tendency of managers to assume the gap they are trying to bridge is a technical one. Sometimes it may well be, but if the assumption is wrong, it will lead to a training and development program that fails to meet its objectives.

So before training programs are designed and implemented, ask the question: ““Is the performance gap this training is intended to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

As we kick start the New Year, there is a tendency for people to make resolutions. While I like the idea of some time for reflection and goal setting, my approach is slightly different. My question is where are my/our thinking and behavioural patterns outdated and therefore no longer in service of our purpose and the outcomes we want to achieve?

In my opinion, one of the key paradigm shifts that will improve our outcomes is developing our capacity to collaborate. Whether we’re talking about national or international politics, companies within the same or similar sectors, or individuals as part of the couple, it appears that humans, as a species, are often challenged around our ability to collaborate. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are hard wired to be highly competitive and defend vigorously what we perceive to be ours, but appear less  inclined to be collaborative or to even entertain the idea of collaboration.

Here are my 5 keys to building a mindset that is more open, and has a greater capacity, to be collaborative. 

1. Build skills at Facilitative Leadership

Whilst many people see that there is a value in being more collaborative, many also see collaboration as being time consuming and ineffective. And, in most cases, they are right. Collaborative decision making can be highly ineffective. For the collaborative decision making process to be effective, it needs to be well led and well facilitated. In this case, the facilitative leadership skills may support a more effective outcome. In fact, the facilitative leader in these situations might act more like a moderator. They control the flow of the conversation, keep people on topic and ensure the quieter and more introverted members are not drowned out by those more extroverted personalities. They also support members to clarify what they are saying. In doing this, the members themselves often gain more clarity as well as deepen their own thoughts and perspectives.

2. Hold the tension of difference (don’t collapse diversity too quickly)

Inevitably, when teams are being more collaborative, a greater diversity of viewpoints and ideas are able to be expressed and heard. Leaders and managers can sometimes have an ‘or’ mindset, which assumes that it must be plan A or plan B that is the most appropriate. A collaborative mindset looks for the ‘and’ solution. In other words, it assumes that there is some wisdom or ‘rightness’ in both plan A and plan B. By clarifying and deepening each viewpoint, it aims to find hidden treasure or wisdom in each of them and therefore develop an even better plan C. This, however, is not an easy thing to do. It means managers and teams have to sit in the tension of the unknown and have faith that at some point in time a ‘plan C’ will emerge from within the tension between the original opposing viewpoints. However, all too often, the tension gets unbearable and teams jump to either A or B simply to relieve the strain of  the unknown, but in doing so, we leap to an outcome before plan C has had the chance to emerge organically.

3. Be Deeply Democratic

Deep Democracy is a concept developed by Arnold Mindell[1]. He is a Jungian analyst and the founder of process oriented psychology or Process Work. Deep Democracy involves helping the various parts of a group to come forward and interact with each other, including those parts that have been silenced or seen as disturbing[2]. Compared with conventional democracy, where the majority ‘wins’, Deep Democracy allows the voices of those within the minority to also be heard and valued. In this way, even if an individual’s own idea or suggestion is not the one implemented, they still feel that they have been heard and valued and that any wisdom or innovation contained within their idea is extracted and used.

4. Manage unhealthy competition or Territorialism

For organisations to be successful, it is essential that they foster and develop a strong competitive nature. This allows them to compete successfully in the marketplace and carve out their niche of market share.  However, when this competitive culture is not channelled in the right direction or turns in on itself and becomes ‘cannibalistic’, it can reduce the organisation’s ability to be collaborative.

Another way to look at competition is to support it and also find ways to maximise its usefulness. Rather than compete against each other, if individuals and teams compete against their own limitations in how they think, behave and relate to each other, it will create better outcomes. Furthermore, the underlying (subconscious) function of competition is often to experience or reach some level of mastery or excellence. In other words, when individuals and teams are not supported and provided a context within which they can strive towards mastery and excellence in a particular endeavour, that need or drive can morph into behaviours of ‘unhealthy’ competition. 

5. Demonstrate trust over time

What can often impair one’s ability or desire to collaborate is a lack of trust or a general skepticism about the good intentions of others. Collaboration is our ability to work together towards a common outcome or goal; it requires individuals to have a win-win approach to the relationship and intent to act in a way that not only serves their own best interests but also the best interests of others.

Building trust requires two things. Firstly, it requires disclosure. This means that you reveal your real intentions and make known the outcomes and what you are thinking in terms of the collaborative relationship. Secondly, trust requires contract. This is simply doing what you say you are going to do and keeping the agreements that you have made. This is true whether those agreements pertain to small or large matters. At the end of the day, trust is earned and built by making and keeping small agreements. If trust is not present in smaller agreements, it means that having trust in more important matters is much less likely. By acting in a trustworthy manner (disclosure and contract) over a period of time, it starts to demonstrate that you are safe to collaborate with. This slow and steady building of trust is important. This is because the process of breaking down those barriers that people have about collaboration, and changing the thinking patterns, belief systems and assumptions that they have about collaboration, can be slow as well.

 

[1] Mindell, A. 1995, Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation through Diversity and Conflict. Lao Tse Press,Portland,OR,USA

 

[2] Diamond, J. and Jones L.S. 2004, A Path Made by Walking, Process Work in Practice Lao Tse Press,Portland,OR,USA

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

I have just finished watching (again) one of my all-time favourite movies: “Remember the Titans”. In the movie, Denzel Washington plays coach Herman Boone. He is the newly appointed coach of the TC Williams High School football team. The movie is set in 1971, in the era when America was de-segregating the education system and for the first time allowing black and white students to attend the same high school. As such, the football team, much like society at the time, was deeply divided along the lines of race. Black and white players were more concerned with their place on the team, defending what they believed was theirs and reducing the accountability of members of their own race so that they would maintain their place on the team. Needless to say, this created a dysfunctional and conflictual culture and one that would have been highly ineffective on a football field.

While this occurs within the context of a Hollywood movie, unfortunately, this kind of division, divisiveness and territorialism is not that uncommon within the teams we work with. And whilst the severity of this dysfunction is rarely as obvious as within the movie, elements of these dynamics still play out on a regular basis.

From the start of their off-season training camp, coach Boone sets the tone for the team; he makes the purpose of the team clear and explicit – the purpose is to be “perfect” in every aspect of the game. He also sets the culture by holding team members and even fellow coaches accountable to “perfect” culture, as well as personally demonstrating the very culture he is trying to create within his team.

In the final stages of the movie, when the team is behind at half time in the State Championship game, he tells the team that in his eyes they are already perfect, and if they win or lose that game is immaterial. One of the team leaders then speaks on behalf of the team and reminds coach Boone as well as his team mates of the original purpose and goal with which they commenced the season – to be “perfect”. He says that as individuals they are not perfect, but as a team they are still perfect as they are still undefeated and intend to stay that way. At this point, it is clear that the original goal and purpose of the coach, has now become the purpose of the players themselves. As one would expect, the team goes on to win the game and the somewhat predictable Hollywood ending ensues.

But what lessons can we learn from this movie which we can apply to our own teams and organisations?

Firstly, for teams to be effective the purpose must be clearly stated. Also the team leaders need to model and embody that purpose themselves.

Secondly, there needs to be process whereby individuals within the team are aligned to that purpose; they need to buy-in to the purpose so that it becomes their own. Team members will usually not go above and beyond the call, they will not strive for excellence and they will not be able to create high performance workplaces if they are working towards someone else’s purpose or a purpose that they don’t identify with. It is once that purpose becomes their own that truly exceptional teams are created.

Thirdly, there needs to be a strong culture of accountability so that individuals within the team act, think, behave and communicate, etc in a way that’s in service of that purpose. Building individual and team capacity to have “difficult conversations” allows managers and team members to hold themselves, and each other, accountable when actions are not in service and aligned to the stated purpose.

How can you use the lessons from the movie to create/review the purpose of your organisation or team so that it inspires and moves team members towards the creation of a high performance workplace?

For more infomation about True North Learning’s Vision and Purpose Development programs visit http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/vision-and-purpose.php

Be Perfect


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

Great leaders: are they born or made? It’s a question that has been vigorously debated since the dawn of time, well, at least since the dawn of capitalism.

But before we can answer that question, we first need to define what leadership is.

At True North Learning we see leadership as having 2 functions. The first function of  leadership is to capture the hearts and minds of those they lead and then align them toward the goals, vision and purpose of the organisation. The second function of leadership is to manage the team they lead, the individuals within that team, and finally the task at hand.

However, the role of leadership that we are noticing in many organisations looks very different to the above. We are noticing that individuals are getting promoted into leadership roles based predominantly on their technical expertise. In other words, if they are a talented engineer or IT consultant or teacher, there is an assumption that they will also be capable of leading a team of engineers, IT consultants or teachers respectively. This thinking fails to recognise that the skill set required to be an engineer is very different to the skill set required to lead a team of engineers. It’s like saying because I am good at cricket, I am also good at football because they are both ball sports. As a result we see and work with many leaders who feel over whelmed, stressed-out and under skilled in their roles, primarily because they have been placed in roles that they may not be suited to or have the necessary skill set to be effective in.

Often we find the more skilled and specialised someone is at the technical aspects of their role, the harder they find it to make the transition into a leadership role. This is because the method of developing technical skills compared to leadership skills is vastly different. Technical skills are usually acquired through traditional education ie reading, taking notes, classes, university courses, apprenticeships etc. Also, they are generally specific to that role or job and cannot be transferred to another role.

Leadership skills on the other hand, whilst somewhat based on theory, are primarily a behavioural skills set. Leadership skills can be transferred to a different role ie if you can lead a team of engineers, in theory you should be able to lead a team of teachers. But the key difference is in how leadership skills are acquired. Because they are behavioural, leadership skills cannot be developed by knowledge alone. It is well documented that knowledge alone does not change behaviours.

Behavioural skills such as leadership skills are developed by “doing”. “Doing” is a 3 step process. Firstly you need to do an activity or task which places you in a leadership role. Second, is the opportunity to reflect on how you performed during that activity.  In reflecting you can see where you were effective and find ways to maximise or leverage that.  You can also explore where you were not so effective, and find ways to manage or develop those aspects. And then thirdly, as athletes do, practice, practice, practice until those desired behaviours become second nature. This is where Experiential Learning is a powerful and outcome-driven methodology for supporting effective behaviours and building individual and team capacity.

Therefore when organisations fill roles, especially leadership roles, with the intention of creating a high performance workplace or team, it is essential to have a clear understanding of whether the performance gap (between current function and optimal function) is of a technical nature or of a leadership/behavioural nature. This then allows organisations to screen/ seek the most appropriate people for the role and/or put in place the most suitable training and development strategy ie not pursue technical training for a behavioural issue.

So back to our original question-are great leaders born or made? If we see the 2 functions of leadership as firstly capturing the hearts and minds of those they lead and secondly to manage team, individual and task, then the answer to the question is BOTH. In other words, great leaders are both born and made.

This is because development of a leaders’ ability to manage team, individual and task is very teachable. This developmental process is optimised when the training methodology  used  focuses on the behavioural aspects of leadership (as opposed to being purely knowledge based).

However, we believe that there is an aspect of the ability to win hearts and minds that is not teachable. This is because this capability comes from a certain charisma and capacity to motivate people. It’s an ability to relate to, deeply understand, build rapport with, and inspire people from a diversity of backgrounds. This ability can be developed to an extent, but if its not a strong part of your intrinsic make up, then training and development can only go so far (no matter how hard, or how much I train, I am never going to run like Usain Bolt)

This does not, however, mean that leaders should not focus on their own development in the 2 elements of effective leadership. We believe that an openness and commitment to their own personal and professional growth is one of the ethical responsibilities of leadership. And besides, even though we all can’t be the Usain Bolt of the leadership world, there is something very noble and profound in the quest.

Let us know what you think: Are great leaders born or made?


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

More often than not, at the heart of conflict lies our perceptions and feelings about power. It is often one’s sense of power (or powerlessness) that compels us to go to war, or to escalate an already existing conflict.

My learning in this area came whilst working in Sri-Lanka in 2007 as a conflict resolution facilitator. I was there with the aim to be a part of the peace process that would end the civil war that had ravaged the country for decades.

As we travelled around the country facilitating various workshops, forums and meetings, I started to see some recurrent themes. Both sides of the conflict, in this case the Government-backed Sinhalese and Tamil Tigers, believed the other side had more power. The Tamils felt oppressed by the socio-economic divide within the country and their lack of political influence. This led them to feel hopeless that the situation would ever change. The Sinhalese lived in fear that a bomb or terrorist attack could occur any place, or at any time. They felt bound by bureaucracy and of having to take actions that were seen to be ethical and legal, whereas the Tamil Tigers could resort to any means eg terrorism to exert their influence.

What became clear in facilitating these forums was that both sides felt powerless relative to the other. Both sides felt marginalised and oppressed by the power of the other. Yet both sides put a brave face on, summoned up the “power” they felt  they did have, and then used that power against the other. In the case of the Sinhalese it was the continuation of a political system that could be viewed as unjust. And in the case of the Tamil Tigers, it was to resort to the unpredictable and fear-inducing tactic of terrorism.

Some of the turning points at these forums, those moments when there was a temporary resolution to the violence, and both sides were on the same page, occurred when we were able to facilitate individuals or group to acknowledge that they were suffering. There is something about the authenticity of suffering, the raw element of human vulnerability, which makes it very difficult to escalate violence. Perhaps it is because in admitting and showing that we are hurting, we make the other side more aware of the impact that their power has on us. And in realising that power, they have less need to exert more power or escalate a conflict. Or perhaps it is because in revealing our vulnerability, we remind the other of their vulnerability, and in that moment we are both the same in that suffering.

So what does this mean for business? One of the best mechanisms to resolve and manage conflict within the workplace is to acknowledge (at least to yourself) the impact that the conflict is having on you. If you can acknowledge it to the party that you’re in conflict with, all the better. In doing this we allow the other side to see that their actions are having an impact and that they have some power. If they continue to feel powerless it is then that they seek additional ways to exert their power and influence such as forming anti-management coalitions, under performing and reducing morale, or in extreme cases litigation (where the intention is to align themselves with a very powerful force – the legal system).

I realise that this flies in the face of most corporate cultures, especially the Australian corporate culture with its sometimes harsh exterior and “She’ll be right mate” attitude. However as leaders and managers perhaps part of our personal and professional development is to find ways to lead that are more authentic and real. And in doing that, be more transparent about how things like workplace conflict impacts us and affects us.

To find out more about how True North Learning works with conflict in organisations visit us at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/conflict-management.php

 

 

 

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

Within conflict lies the potential for growth, transformation and learning.

Workplace conflict is a symptom of the need for a change in how people communicate, the values which drive them, or the business model that is used to operate from.

Yet all too often as managers, our own past experience of conflict, a feeling of confusion or lack of skills prevent us from intervening and managing conflict in an effective manner.

The costs of conflict to a team or organisation can be significant.

There are the tangible costs to unaddressed workplace conflict. It is estimated that it costs 65% of a staff member’s annual income to replace them if they leave in a way which is unplanned. The average cost of WorkCover claims associated with grievances is $80,000.

Then there are all of the intangible impacts of unaddressed or poorly handled conflict: low team morale; high staff turnover; workplace bullying and harassment; poor productivity; lack of ownership of outcomes; and, cliques in the workplace. All these jeopardise the current and future profitability and sustainability of the business.

Yet, with a few strategies and skills, conflict can be managed so it provides a powerful impetus for change, learning and innovation. Here are 5 key strategies to effectively address workplace conflict:

  1. Attempt to address conflict as early as possible: There are usually a number of steps and escalation signs before conflict becomes overt, eg a bad mood or “vibe”, poor productivity, office gossip. Generally, the earlier we address the issues the less complicated and destructive the conflict is and the easier it is to manage.
  2. Create a safe and confidential forum for workplace conflict to be resolved: What can undermine the resolution of conflict is if those parties having the conflict don’t feel safe or fear being labelled or scape-goated. Creating a safe and confidential forum and reminding both them and ourselves that their view points and experiences are valid (no matter how diverse it may be) supports the resolution process.
  3. Be aware of the power dynamics within the workplace: One of the biggest causes of workplace conflict is a lack of awareness of power dynamics; for example, the power differential between a manager and staff member. This might make it more difficult for the staff member to speak up in disagreement. If this disagreement “festers” for long enough it can create conflict. The solution is not about making the power differential equal, but more about being aware of it and its potential implications.
  4. Think systemically: While there is usually a personal aspect to workplace conflict there is often a systemic or cultural aspect as well. Think about how open the team or organisational culture is to having honest and direct conversations. Do the leaders model and encourage these behaviours? Is there a formal feedback structure in place to create role clarity and clear expectations? The more we address these cultural and systemic issues the more we reduce the “fertile ground” for conflict to occur.
  5. Build your own capacity to deal with conflict: Most of us hate dealing with conflict, and for most of us this aversion to conflict comes from childhood conditioning and the way conflict was handled (or not handled) by our parents and adult role models. The more we can work with our own issues and find the “talents” that we developed or were forced to develop while growing up, the more capacity we have to address conflict in a proactive and effective manner.

 

To find out more about how True North Learning works with conflict in organisations visit us at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/conflict-management.php


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

Very few people feel comfortable in the face conflict! There is something about the intensity of conflict and its unpredictable nature that makes us want to run and hide, and hope that by the time we come out, all will be well in the world again.

Ironically, this is possibly the least favourable strategy when it comes to effectively resolving and managing conflict, but more about this later.

For me personally, my baptism of fire in terms of conflict resolution training was spending time in Sri-Lanka (the land of my heritage) in 2007 working with the ongoing civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri-Lankan government. Conflict work in a war zone is very challenging, especially when the conflict has been so protracted. In a long term conflict there is a high degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and this trauma can lead to people being dissociated or detached from their emotions. When individuals are not connected to their fear, anger, grief, sense of revenge etc, a simple disagreement can turn into a shooting very quickly.

So from a facilitation standpoint there are 2 things you need to do to keep yourself safe as well as get a good outcome. Firstly, you need to notice and then
bring people’s awareness to any signals or signs of escalation. A raised voice, a rolling of the eyes, an accusation that’s just followed by a counter accusation can all be signs that things are about to get out of control. By noticing, framing and bringing the awareness of the conflicted parties to these signals, they don’t go undetected. Hence, people start to build their capacity and skills in noticing the impact and effect their behaviours have on “the other”

Secondly, as we frame these signals, we need to support and encourage the parties to talk about the feelings, beliefs and stories which underlie these
escalation signals. Talking about these signals deepens the understanding of what they mean and why they are there. This is important for both the signal sender as well as the signal receiver.

If conflict has a purpose or a reason for existence, then that reason is perhaps simple. More often than not, conflict is a symptom of the need for a greater and deeper dialogue between the conflicting parties. By supporting this process we are actually addressing the conflict at it causal level.

So back to why hiding in the corner and hoping it will go away is not a preferred strategy when it comes to conflict resolution. This just avoids or prolongs the dialogue. Like any symptom, when the underlying cause is not being addressed it gets exacerbated. But facing conflict in a more direct and proactive manner is way beyond the comfort zone of most people. For me personally, having spent time in a war zone, where if I mess up someone (including me) could get shot, gives me some perspective. This perspective allows me to perceive some yelling, screaming and perhaps even “storming off” as not so frightening. It allows me to stay centred and clear thinking in the midst of heated situations. And this is exactly what is needed in most conflicted situations- someone with a clear and centred head to facilitate and deepen the dialogue between the parties by noticing and bringing to their awareness the subtle feelings, desires, hurts and escalation events, that for the most part, they themselves ignore.