I’ve blogged about the wonderful Brene Brown before and I’m really delighted that her lecture on vulnerability here has been chosen as our next RSA Short. We’re really pleased with it – and gratifyingly Brene herself has given it an enthusiastic stamp of approval.
Hope you like it …
In his e-book anti-hero, Richard Wilson describes the malign characteristics of the heroic leader as over-confidence, a lack of empathy, inflexibility and being unable to recognise uncertainty. Conversely, the benign characteristics of the anti-heroic leader are being empathic, humble, self-aware, flexible and comfortable with uncertainty.
There is some tilting at windmills here. I suspect even Fred the Shred would have denied neatly fitting the former list or totally rejected the latter, but I also have a semantic quibble: Surely, to exercise the qualities Richard extols under the growing day to day pressures of organisational leadership is itself heroic? We might particularly think this having explored something rarely acknowledged, that leadership is inherently tinged with pathos.
The very pursuit of high office has elements of delusion and futility. Lacan plangently described falling in love as ‘giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist’. Our ambitions and the objects of our desire are displacements of our instinctive desires. The claim of leadership may be dishonest. We say it is to make the world better but it is really an attempt to make us feel better. While the fulfilment of that ambition is futile as we are likely to find the desire that drove us remains unfulfiled. Whisper it quietly to the young and ambitious, but they will probably one day abandon leadership not because they are satiated but because they are defeated or exhausted.
And when we give up the struggle how quickly the waters close over our heads. The one thing of which most leaders can be sure is that a few weeks after their leaving party their successor will be announcing plans for a root and branch strategic review with a mind to achieving transformational change in what the new leader sees by implication as an outdated and creaking institution. If you want to feel the full force of the transience of status try visiting somewhere you used to be a leader a few years after you’ve left it. New staff won’t know who you are and old ones will try to hide their embarrassment at the fact that it has long become a recognised fact that your reign was mediocre at best.
Finally, heroic leaders often remain unsung. We live in a short term world with a shrinking attention span and little or no respect for the recent past and those who inhabited it. Yet, a large part of good leadership is about laying down long term foundations and addressing weaknesses and risks before they turn into problems. Some of the best and bravest decisions any leader makes may remain virtually unknown until years later when a successor – who may be of little merit – gets the credit for a long since made investment. This may have been more bearable in a slower moving, more deferential world with a more settled and self-assured leadership class but when blame and reputational disaster can move so fast, it is hard to expect leaders to await their reward in heaven. In my view Richard definitely left one leadership virtue off his list – stoicism.
None of this is to say that I would advise against the ambition to lead. It would after all be pretty hypocritical to do so. Love may be ‘the hysterical illusion we are no longer alone in the world’ (Lacan again) but it also makes life joyful and motivates great acts of courage and compassion. Leadership may be self-deceiving and futile but it also solves problems, drives progress and can release our most noble capabilities. To understand the tragedy of leadership is not to abandon it. As the stoics argued, resignation – particularly resignation we have chosen to adopt – can be a source of wisdom and comfort.
On Monday I had the honour of interviewing the great writer and practicing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Near the end (I won’t say when because you ought to watch the whole thing) an audience member asked about coaching for leaders. Phillips wanted to know what the purpose of the coaching was seen to be; merely to make the boss a better profit maker perhaps?
I am a supporter of leadership coaching. Partly for the reasons I have given, leaders need a safe place in which they can stop leading, unburden and be human. But coaching, like analysis, should not promise, or perhaps even offer, to provide instrumental success. Coaching may make us wiser in part because it makes us sadder (I have heard analysis described as ‘replacing hysterical neuroses with everyday melancholy’). Equally, and this possibility should perhaps be explicit from the outset, it might inspire us to find somewhere a little less exhausting to displace our insatiable desires.
Text messaging and social media have become an increasingly common part of customer service. Here are two contrasting examples:
New parents can sign up to any number of information services from the NHS, the third sector or private companies. One common service is a text that coincides with the infant getting older, initially weekly and then monthly. The texts can be very reassuring telling parents what they are likely to expect at any precise age: for example, reassuring the parent of a 16 month old that it is perfectly normal for a toddler to veer between being completely charming and utterly inexplicably furious.
At the recent Fairbanking awards held at the RSA many of the accounts that were highly rated, including the first ever to receive five stars, had systems for texting people warning people of the danger of going overdrawn and encouraging them to save. The best accounts seem to increase substantially the propensity of customers to save for ‘rainy day’ items like holidays, houses or weddings.
The significance of the second example lies in the possibility that it offers a way out of the free banking problem. As Adair Turner argued last year, the problem with banks offering free current accounts to customers in credit is that it is not the basis for a viable retail business model. For this reason, the banks have to find other ways of making money which they have consistently done by misleading offers, dodgy fees and dodgier products. For years bank leaders have admitted off the record it is almost impossible to find a virtuous way of making money out of customers as long as free banking (which is unusual in other countries) persists. When asked why they don’t simply start charging, the banks freely admit that they don’t trust their rivals not to swoop down and opportunistically steal their customers.
But if, through texting and other means, banks offer an effective and personalised information and support service we may find a way out of this deeply damaging dead end. Income on accounts in credit can be made in two ways – either through a differential on the interest rate earned by the bank and paid to the customer or through a service charge. To win a Fairbanking seal of approval accounts like the RBS/NatWest Instant Saver with Savings Goals have to show both that they offer interest rates broadly in line with the market average and that they don’t use the old trick of offering bonus rates at the beginning which quickly taper off once the customer has been hooked.
More broadly, there is little doubt digital and social media based customer service will grow and grow, but a game changer could come if we start to select and judge these services by their behavioural efficacy. So, for example, an important part of deciding which gym to join might be the digital customer engagement service it provides; by combining behavioural psychology with personal data and algorithmic learning these services might soon start (if they haven’t already) to provide more than just useful information; they will promise – like the Nat West bank account – to help you personally meet your goals.
As customers we can then judge the service by that same criterion: Did the nudging from the gym make me go more often? There may, of course, be other criteria we apply. ‘Go to the gym NOW you lazy git’ may work as a message but I might also find it offensive. However, the technology should quickly be able to work out what kind of messages you respond to well – especially when it gets easier to trawl data and combine information from different products to develop a fuller picture of our motivational character. It is already the case that platforms like Google and Amazon seem to know our tastes better than we do.
Hopes for this new world of relational services should be tempered by some reservations. Raised expectations must work both ways. If I am regularly getting personalised text messages it would be unforgivable for the service provider to then worsen the deal I am getting without alerting me. As the exploitation of information imbalances and customer inertia have been an integral part of the business plan of banks and energy companies for decades, this is a major challenge and one I suspect most these companies don’t yet fully appreciate.
Also, perhaps the behavioural impact will be less than we hope. What works is not necessarily what sells. The impact on saving levels of the NatWest account described above has impressed behavioural economists but it may be a one off or may not last. After all, globally billions of pounds are spent on diets that don’t work and self-help books that only make us more miserable. One reason diets fail (apart from the dubious motives of those who promote them) is that we are living in an obesogenic society. Individual nudging can be useful but it needs to be part of a strategy that includes wider public education and engagement, shifts in social norms and sometimes state regulation.
While relational services in the public and private sectors hold the prospect of helping us live bigger, better lives we should never forget that major and sustained behavioural shifts are inherently social phenomena.
As I found out when I gave my annual lecture employee engagement is not a headline-grabbing issue. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am that it deserves attention……
This morning I spoke at the launch of a Resolution Foundation report on long term low pay. As we have come to expect from Resolution the report is robust, well-argued and measured in its tone. In essence it shows that a high proportion of people on low pay ten years ago have either been low paid throughout the decade or have ‘cycled’ in and out before ending up back more or less back where they started. But the report also recognises a more hopeful finding which is that levels of ‘escaping from low pay’ have risen in the last ten years while the numbers stuck long term have declined.
I found myself on a panel responding to the report with Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chair of John Lewis, and Frances O’Grady, Secretary General of the TUC. In my response I recognised the problem of low pay and the need to take obvious steps like restoring some of the lost real value of the minimum wage and encouraging more employers to pay the Living Wage. But I also argued that we need to understand more about the nature of low pay, what might be an acceptable level of low pay (given that it is a relative measure there will always be low paid people) and what reasons there might be for people freely choosing and staying for some time in low paid jobs.
Given it was the subject of my recent annual lecture, I also managed to make sure that the issue of employee engagement became a significant part of our conversation. I argued, and Charlie agreed, that good employee engagement can not only improve staff relations and boost productivity but is also likely to exert pressure for fairer distribution of pay and profits within the firm. Increasing employee engagement could therefore be an important part of a strategy to address low pay and poor career progression.
In my annual lecture I suggested that significant progress on employee engagement may be in reach. If we could combine the basic framework of collective rights encouraged in the 2004 Information and Consultation Regulations with best practice found in individual employee engagement (schemes like Best Companies and Investors in People) we could develop a ’Good Employer’ threshold and kite-mark which could, through peer pressure, consumer choice and public procurement, drive a step change in employment practice; something which would almost certainly benefit firms, workers and wider society.
Given that the tools are to hand, the barrier to this initiative may be largely cultural. On the one hand, advocates of employee engagement dislike talk of collective rights, while on the other side the advocates of collective worker representation (generally, supporters of trade unionism) tend to be somewhat dismissive of the voluntaristic and individualistic nature of employee engagement. But if both sides of the approach work together the mutual concerns can in part be allayed. If surveys of individual employees show high levels of satisfaction then worker representatives have fewer grounds for being adversarial, while the danger that employee engagement is tokenistic is reduced if there are also more robust channels for employee voice.
So, this morning I took the opportunity of asking Frances O’Grady if she supported my idea and one part of it in particular: ‘As long as companies properly implement the 2004 regulations’ I asked’ would you accept that it is reasonable for information and consultation to be provided through a non-trade union route, for example through an in-house staff association?’. The point being that if a campaign to improve engagement is seen as way of forcing trade union recognition on unwilling employers and unenthusiastic staff, it is unlikely to gain wider public support.
Frances’s reply was heartening. She saw pragmatic reasons for trade unions to support better engagement and voice at work regardless of whether they are involved in delivering them. To paraphrase her argument: where there are proper processes for information, consultation and voice this generally leads either to trade unions finding it easier to organise or to individual trade unionists taking on the mantle of staff representative. Frances’s position implies a willingness to support a voluntary Good Employment framework (albeit that she would prefer stronger legal collective rights) even if it doesn’t require trade unions to be part of its delivery.
The measures most often advocated to tackle low pay are regulatory and economistic; raising the minimum wage and spreading the living wage. As I say, I support this, but the liberal in me wants to address the problem in a way that maximises the degree of human discretion and minimises the necessity for state regulation.
I strongly suspect that firms with robust employee engagement also have fairer wage structures. However, it may be that in some firms some of the time the existence of low paid jobs is seen by employees as legitimate. This may reflect the nature of those jobs or the financial position of the company. If employees are asked whether remuneration is fair (an aspect for example of the Best Companies staff survey) and if employees have the opportunity to express collective concerns, then we may recognise that low pay is not always something to be opposed.
For some reason robust employee engagement is a less exciting and mobilising goal than the living wage but it may be a more effective and more nuanced way of tackling low pay and also one with many other benefits.
It is no doubt a personal failing, but I have never managed to build up much enthusiasm for theories of leadership and organisational change. True, I adhere to cultural theory as a way of thinking about sources of power and models of change, and I also am enthusiastic about the idea of anti-heroic leadership as expounded by Richard Wilson is his recent book, but these are broad orientations rather than prescriptive methodologies. It may simply be rationalising my inability to stay awake past the first chapter of most books on organisational leadership, but the complexity and reflexivity of social change seems to me better served by a compass than a map.
However, I find myself booked in tomorrow to give two talks about leadership and change with the expectation that I use the RSA as some kind of case study. It is gratifying that Action for Children and ACEVO think there is a success to be described (it may just be they’ve heard I am cheap and do jokes), but I will be admitting from the outset that my seven years here provide as many stories about what can go wrong and of how hard change can be as it is does exemplars of best practice. Nevertheless I am going to try out one way of conceptualising change; not so much as a description of what we have been doing here but more as a guide which might have helped me do things better had I used it from the start.
My suggestion is that purposive organisational change can be seen to have four stages: ‘basic inquiry’, ‘conventional alignment’, ‘existential inquiry’ and ‘transformational alignment’. As this implies, the four stages comprise two pairs at lower and higher orders of ambition.
‘Basic inquiry’ describes the stage – often following the appointment of a new leader – when essential questions are asked about the organisation’s purpose, performance and fitness for purpose. This stage precedes change and so there is in our accelerating world a tendency for leaders to do it too quickly or superficially or to treat it as a process of confirming initial prejudices. Patience and humility are useful attributes if the leader is really to understand why it that certain patterns of thinking, acting and performing have become embedded: things which look functional may reveal themselves to be less so and things which seem otiose might on closer inspection have a deeper purpose which needs to be appreciated even if not preserved. It’s probably best not to emulate my first RSA staff meeting in which I said in nearly so many words ‘you’re all a bit rubbish but don’t worry I’m here to save you!’.
‘Conventional alignment’ describes the process whereby the leader tries to bring some clarity to the organisation’s purpose and aims and then seeks to align the organisation with those objectives. This is partly about desisting from things which don’t align and enhancing those which do, but also about capacities and competencies. An example of this for the RSA was the processes of engagement, conflict, investment and trial and error which followed the insight that the RSA Fellowship wanted to shift from being largely a social and recreational club to an integral part of delivering our charitable mission.
This stage will tend to lead to a substantial turnover of staff, indeed it is often what people think of when they talk about organisational change. It can be slow and difficult and when it has been at least partially accomplished there is an entirely understandable tendency to feel the job is done.
‘Existential inquiry’ describes the point at which an apparently well-functioning organisation comes to see that it is not in fact standing for or achieving the change (relevant to its mission) it most wants to see in the world. This is a deeper moment of reflection and calls for leaders to identify a profound challenge even though the rest of the organisation feels it has only just gone through a painful process of becoming fit for purpose. ‘But’ the leader says ‘for what purpose’?
An example here might be the head teacher of a school which has gone through basic inquiry, found out why it is not ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and has done the tough things in the conventional alignment stage necessary to achieve that status. But then, after a summer break in which staff members have celebrated reaching the safe harbour of OFSTED approval, they return to a head who asks ‘we may have the seal of approval, but can we really say that we are transforming the life chances of pupils and inculcating a deep love of learning?’ At issue here is not just what the organisation does but its culture, ethic and imagination.
The RSA is in this stage right now as we undertake a strategic review based on the conviction that we should measure success in terms not of outputs or organisational health (in which terms we now do well) but substantive real world change.
‘Transformational alignment’ is a stage to which I aspire but which I can’t say I have ever managed to attain. It is the point at which the organisation does not need to be changed, nor much led in the conventional sense, because its culture is profoundly attuned with a powerful sense of purpose, one which not only drives high performance but creates an organisation-wide process of continuous self-improvement (which will, by the way, involve the ‘clumsy’ coming together of hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic power). This stage should be what leaders aspire to. If they achieve it they should enjoy it to the full if only because changes in context or fortune or the complacency and overreach promoted by success mean that sooner or later it will end.
The obvious questions posed by this schema are (and having written a thousand words I suspect I am by now talking to myself): why is it necessary to go through two loops, can’t one go straight to ‘existential inquiry’; and, how can I reasonably encourage leaders to pursue a state of ‘transformational alignment’ when I can’t actually say I have created or experienced it myself?
In reply to the first, existential inquiry is too profound and difficult to be accomplished while an organisation is failing to deliver on its narrower output goals. Indeed existential questioning may be a bad idea when the often thankless heavy lifting of ‘conventional alignment’ is under way.
The second question is harder: all I can say is that I have from time to time had that sense of deep conviction of purpose combined with an openness to continuous inquiry and improvement, but it has been around one off projects or particular moments not at the level of a whole organisation.
Anyway, to get through the hard graft of organisational change don’t we need to believe there might be something rather wonderful –albeit only temporary – at the end of it?