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Clarity: The Essence of Collaborative Organizing Published: Sunday, August 16, 2009 6:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

The ability to communicate straightforwardly is a much needed quality and competence in contemporary organizations. The way people communicate with one another internally determines their capacity to develop collaborative relationships and to learn from each other. Candor sets the ambient for getting more people in the conversations, and therefore, for getting idea richer. Many more ideas get surfaced, discussed, pulled apart, and improved. Any organization that brings more people and their minds into meaningful conversations has an immediate advantage under the present market conditions.

 An organizational culture that values and practices clarity is a necessity in today's global marketplace. Clarity generates speed. Ideas can be debated rapidly, expanded and enhanced, and acted upon. Collaborative organizing rests on people's willingness to be in partnership with those they interact with at work. Partnership is a relationship in which people feel equally responsible for the success of their joint task, project or process.

 But institutionalizing candor and clarity in any organization is easier said than done. As the great researcher and writer Gervase Bushe has lectured us, organizations have a tendency to develop "interpersonal mush" a phenomena that hampers honest communication, creates misunderstanding, and prevent teams and entire organizations from realizing the promise of sustained partnership and collaboration. When leaders or managers do not welcome interpersonal clarity, they usually act in fused or disconnected ways and so perpetuate the interpersonal mush that is already going on (Bushe, 2009).

 People are in a fused relationship when their thoughts and feelings are in reaction to other people's thoughts and feelings. How they feel depends on what others say or do. The more fused leaders become, the more their awareness and experience is determined by those he works with. Managers who are fused with their employees give them messages, implicit or explicit, about how they should behave for the manager to feel OK. A leader who falls into this trap no longer knows what is going on with other people or what impact the leader's behavior is having on them.

 Outstanding teams and organizations require leaders who have a vision of the team or organization at its best and are willing to push hard to accomplish it. This sometimes means stepping on toes. The best leaders are not people who constantly fret about ensuring everyone agrees with them. Not at all. They just want to know exactly where people stand and why, so that they understand the situation and aren't causing unnecessary problems. Leaders need to be able to hear the misery they are causing people as they force them to change and not lose their own vision because of it. Leaders can't be fused with the people they lead or they will cave in to other people's emotions or avoid hearing altogether. To be hard-nosed leaders, however, some people go to the opposite extreme-disconnection.

 Disconnection appears to be quite prevalent among senior managers in organizations and looks different from fusion in that the person is not likely to be emotionally hijacked and is not demanding that people express only certain kinds of experience. Rather, the disconnected manager shows little interest in employee's experience. He gives the appearance that other people's experience is irrelevant to the business at hand. Such leaders tend to show no curiosity about the impact of their ideas or actions. They don't inquire into other people's thoughts, feelings, and wants. They're aware of each employee as an object, a role, or a means to an end but have no curiosity about what goes on inside of anyone else. A disconnected response is as unconscious as a fused one.

 Leaders who are disconnected from their colleagues don't make demands on others to act in ways that make them feel OK. Instead, they enter and exit situations to control their anxiety. They avoid situations, interaction and people that might cause them to not feel OK. In Western organizations disconnection tends to look more professional than fusion. Some people equate disconnection with professionalism, contending that professional managers keep their distance and don't allow themselves to care about employees. This might work, in bureaucratic systems but it is deadly in empowered organizations, where cooperation and partnership are required.

 There is already a tendency for subordinates to keep leaders in the dark about the effect they are having and about the stories people are making up about them. When managers and leaders are operating out of a disconnected state, the combination ensures that they will have little chance to give the kind of leadership outstanding organizations require. Disconnection is a kind of professionalism that organizations cannot afford.

 The above behavioral states reflect deep-seated dilemmas we face as human beings. We want two things that seem to be mutually exclusive. On one hand we value our individuality, our ability to be self-defined, to find and walk our own path. On the other hand we value belonging, having others who care about us both for the intimacy and for the sense of community. Looked at from the flip side, we fear the isolation and loneliness that too much separation from others could bring, but at the same time we fear demands for conformity and feeling stifled by others' expectations that can come from close relationships. This contradiction, the paradox of individuality versus belonging, is a core challenge every leader faces.

 Effective leadership requires balancing these extremes in a place that Murray Bowen called self-differentiation. When leaders are differentiated they are both separate from and connected to their followers. They have clear boundaries about their own thoughts and feelings separate from those of others. At the same time they are curious about others and care about what is going on in them. They are able to stay in connection with followers while not losing themselves.

 Leaders who are able to be self-differentiated can be clear about performance expectations and stay true to their vision while listening to and seeking to understand the fears and objections of the people who will have to carry out that vision. They are willing to listen until they understand and can demonstrate that understanding, but not have their agenda emotionally hijacked by others. Because of this they do not get anxious when other people express their fears and questions. They welcome it. Self-differentiation is finding a place where belonging and individuality are not mutually exclusive, where a leader is both separate from the followers and connected to them at the same time.

 Self differentiation leads to clear leadership. And there are four (4) skills of clear leadership: Self-awareness, Descriptiveness, Curiosity and Appreciation. These skills are useful for all persons, regardless of their positions, who work in any organization that is based on principles of teamwork, personal initiative, and partnership. They are required for increasing clarity and candor. And anytime someone helps the members of a group increase their clarity, learn from experience, and improve their ways of working together, that person is providing leadership.


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