Everyone in an organisation, regardless of position, is at times a leader whether they want to acknowledge it or not. At the same time, it is imperative that we embrace being a follower when the time is right. Dynamically moving between leading and following as the situation demands enables the opportunity to have the best leadership available. In other words, the best-suited person to be the leader in a given situation leads.
We recognise that reality on the ground doesn't always look like this, but moving towards a workplace that allows this crucial element of good teamwork to flourish is one of our passions; when leadership is a shared responsibility, employee engagement rises and we're closer to unleashing innovation.
In this article, we'll look at how your company's "social network" can support everyone in stepping up and delivering greater value while engaging more colleagues in their work as well. We'll look at the fundamental elements that compose this network, and layout some advice for ways you and your colleagues can support each other when it's yours (or their!) time to lead.
The structure social networks take emerges from interactions between people, based on:
- Psychological complexity
- Motivational orientation
- Power dynamics
Fortunately, these three areas are well understood, heavily researched, and there's much we can accomplish by bringing this learning together and applying it. These three aspects of how we organise ourselves paint a picture that's deeper than a person at work; it's who we fundamentally are. The how and why of what we do and say. When looked at as a collection of people, it's the structure by which we organise ourselves.
Now, passing the leadership baton is a highly context-specific activity, and is tied to the company's wider social network. Depending on who, from what team, is around, dynamics can change. If we're trying to learn, collaborate, and innovate, a dialogue between all involved is necessary. We'll look deeper into dialogue in a future article, but for now, when it comes to how we speak and listen together in a group, remember that it's deeper than the average chat around the water cooler; it's a conversational give and take that draws out true intentions. It's critically important to our overall success, but here we want to focus on the three areas that constitute our social networks.
Throughout this series, we've touched on how our mindset impacts our work. We've also shown that a person's mindset is not fixed and how it can change over time. Our mindset determines what we pay attention to (and therefore prioritise), and what passes by unseen. How we make sense of the environment we are in is a function of our mindset. As complexity in the environment grows, the complexity of our psychology (mindset) struggles to keep up, hence high-levels of employee disengagement, work stress, and anxiety.
It's helpful to be aware of our own mindset, and others' mindsets as well. This isn't an arbitrary designation that can be used to rank employees as better or worse, and should never be "weaponised" against a colleague! It's measured with a tool called the Leadership Development Profile (LDP); this analytical tool measures the structure of an individual's meaning-making capacity. This data indicates how we make sense of the world, and everyone lands somewhere on a spectrum of different mindsets. Perhaps the most important aspect of this to remember is that we're all moving through these mindsets as our lives progress. However, under pressure, everyone falls back to a less sophisticated way of making sense of the world.
"How we make sense of the environment we are in is a function of our mindset. As complexity in the environment grows, the complexity of our psychology (mindset) struggles to keep up..."
We know that a common assumption is that the developmental stage of others is further back than our own. We often think "we get it and they don't". For those of us interested in making our teams better, the question is "How can each of us recognise other people's meaning-making (as well as our own) and support the most sophisticated mindset that each of us is capable of engaging?"
We recently did some client work with a cross-functional team of ten people. Prior to the engagement, we used the LDP on the whole team. One team member at a later-stage meaning-making capacity was comparable with a number of her colleagues. But, according to her LDP, she made her meaning over a wider range of stages, or "action-logics", than her colleagues. This meant that when she was under pressure or feeling vulnerable, she had the potential to regress to a much earlier mindset than her teammates. Colleagues later said that they experienced this as her being "rather childish" when the going got tough.
Armed with a greater understanding of the dynamics of our meaning-making, we can better support our colleagues during tough times at work and in life. Here are some ways you can do just that:
- When someone's interrupted or talked over, insist that they finish their thought
- Invite the quiet voices to speak
- Ask more questions
- Empathise. Put yourself in their shoes and think about where they're coming from!
Important though psychological development is, it isn't the whole story. If we're thinking about how individuals come together as teams, motivation also plays a part.
Amazingly, a person can be extremely psychologically advanced while also colossally lazy at the same time!
If we really want to understand what leadership means and how to enact it, we need to talk about the cues in the environment that cause people to choose to act (or not). Psychologists call this our "orientation".
When we talk about motivational orientation, we're referring to a person's preference for giving (or receiving) instruction or acting of their own volition towards a commonly understood objective. This is what we mean when we use the word "autonomy".
As it turns out, all of us are comfortable giving and taking orders to some extent. However, we are more comfortable deciding for ourselves how we ought to act. These two things: control and autonomy, don't sit well together. Excessive control undermines autonomy and therefore individual wellbeing.
Once we understand that each of us orientates towards control and autonomy to varying degrees, we can be more purposeful in deciding what orientation to engage with and support the autonomy of others when the situation calls for it. The side of the autonomy/control scale we're on is a choice.
After we've made that choice, an aspect of culture emerges as the sum of the decisions we all make. This aspect of our culture also reinforces the likelihood of engaging with one orientation to the other. We are a product of our culture, but our culture is also a product of us!
It just so happens that autonomy is also one of three basic universal psychological needs (Ryan & Deci). In supporting someone's autonomy, you're supporting their wellbeing.
To support autonomy, here are a few ideas:
- Recognise that there is value in someone choosing to speak as well as value in what they have to say. Honor that value and listen.
- If you've got to cancel a meeting, ask someone if there are any implications of doing so that you're not aware of. At the very least, tell them why.
- Seek out the insight of people other than those you usually go to
- When power is at play, remember that you often have a choice: you can interpret the information you've received as an instruction with which you must comply, or an invitation to act on your own volition towards a commonly understood goal.
Finally, to really be able to read the room, we need to take a look at power itself. As mentioned earlier, it's fluid, but there are several dynamics involved for us to consider.
Power comes in many forms. The one we think of most often is what Foucault called "disciplinary power." We might think of this power as "authority" and associate it with the upper-echelons of the corporate hierarchy or those with fancy job titles. It's power over people. It's real, and maybe even necessary.
There's a different, less recognised type of power though. It's the power we all exercise outside of our work with our loved ones, children, friends, spouses, partners etc...
This is power with people. It emerges through dialogue between individuals and it depends upon autonomy. We might think of it as social power. We don't often recognise our own power and the impact that it has on other people. We're not talking about being an influencer on social media, we're talking about how the way we speak and listen has an impact on the structure of conversations, as well as the content.
Our research shows that 90% of people surveyed have an aspiration to create an environment where people act autonomously. Somehow, there's a sense that something's inherently right about people deciding for themselves how to go about their work. However, we see from the same research that we don't quite hit our aspiration, and people are actually using their authoritative power to control the work that teams are undertaking.
People intuitively recognise the two types of power, but more often than not choose to control (or comply) rather than support autonomy. The problem with this use of power is that it distorts the authenticity of dialogue. Because control reinforces a power imbalance, people don't say what needs to be said or hear what needs to be heard.
We have to be able to recognise what kind of power is at play and be able to adjust our behaviour to suit the situation. Enabling authentic dialogue means balancing power. Here are a few ways you can try:
- You have a choice in how you respond to power.
- Delegate decision making. You may have an opinion on what should be done, but you're interested in supporting others' decision-making.
- Recognise that the power to create value exists within teams. A leaders' role is to enable that power to deliver on the promise.
Now that you've seen the three components that form our social networks, you can see how it's up to everyone to lead at the right time. Consider your and your teammate's mindsets, motivational orientation, and power dynamics to step up when you're called to, and support them when it's their turn. You'll see engagement rise and innovation will have the chance to emerge.
Want to discuss how your team can benefit from an LDP? Give us a shout!
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