Disruptive Times Require a New Approach to Management and Leadership

“Disruptive times call for transformational leaders with a knack for addressing complex problems. To navigate effectively, we must learn to let go–and become more complex ourselves. “

This quote is from the fascinating piece form McKinsey & Co “Leading with Inner Agility” By Sam Bourton, Johanne Lavoie and Tiffany Vogel.

It is an article about how to manage in the face of change.  (You can read it here .)  It shows that our ingrained reactions… to fall back onto old maxims… can be counterproductive and will fail to find the right response to the developing situations we face:

“We live in an age of accelerating disruption. Every company is facing up to the profound changes wrought by digitization. Industry boundaries have become permeable. Data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of forecasting, decision making, and the workplace itself. All this is happening at once, and established companies are responding by rethinking their business models, redesigning their organizations, adopting novel agile-management practices, and embracing design thinking.”

The authors go on to suggest some rules of thumb to help leaders to navigate such waters….

  • Pause to move faster. Pausing while remaining engaged in action is a counterintuitive step that leaders can use to create space for clear judgment, original thinking, and speedy, purposeful action.
  • Embrace your ignorance. Good new ideas can come from anywhere, competitors can emerge from neighboring industries, and a single technology product can reshape your business. In such a world, listening–and thinking–from a place of not knowing is a critical means of encouraging the discovery of original, unexpected, breakthrough ideas.
  • Radically reframe the question. One way to discern the complex patterns that give rise to both problems and windows of emergent possibilities is to change the nature of the questions we ask ourselves. Asking yourself challenging questions may help unblock your existing mental model.
  • Set direction, not destination. In our complex systems and in this complex era, solutions are rarely straightforward. Instead of telling your team to move from point A to point B, join them in a journey toward a general direction. Lead yourself, and your team, with purposeful vision, not just objectives.
  • Test your solutions–and yourself. Quick, cheap failures can avert major, costly disasters. This fundamental Silicon Valley tenet is as true for you as it is for your company. Thinking of yourself as a living laboratory helps make the task of leading an agile, ever-shifting company exciting instead of terrifying

But to adopt these ideas will require you to control your reactions and emotions and thereby avoid a “rush to judgement”.  You will be required  to counter the ingrained desire to act immediately;  so that you are more able to create a pause… to seek out  a more profound or radical approach to the challenges. Further, it requires more openness and objectivity… and the ability to be comfortable with your own ignorance and uncertainty rather than being panicked by it (which can lead to a rush to devise a quick fix). This takes take a lot of emotional energy and control.

Here’s where it is essential to possess resilience to deal with the pressure to rapidly adopt a position; and mindfulness to control our gut reactions so as to remain objective and calm.   These skills will help us to be able to listen with a deeper focus rather than allowing our ingrained reactions and emotions to cause us to fail to accept the full picture or even to discard alternative strategies.

The piece goes on to give details of how meditative techniques can support leaders to accept the situation without panic and to accept that they themselves may need time to explore and listen rather that rush to act in support of their own self-image or from a perceived need to have all the answers.

“Claiming this space is hard, and there are no silver bullets. Some CEOs like daily meditation. We know one CEO who takes a ten-minute walk through the neighbourhood around his office—leaving his cell phone on his desk. Others regularly catch a minute’s worth of deep breathing between meetings. The repetition of such practices helps them pause in the moment, interrupt well-grooved habits that get triggered under duress, and create space to practice something different.”

“…if you don’t start the journey of learning how to decouple from your context and the immediate response it provokes, you’ll find it harder and harder to be open to new ideas, or to become a better listener—both traits that are critical at moments where your own vision is clouded.”

At Carina we are close to launching our REZL app that provides a foundation course to use mindfulness to increase resilience.  We are seeking to work with groups of users at all levels within organisations… This piece from McKinsey suggests that REZL will be of particular value to senior managers within larger corporations when facing disruptive change.  If you are a senior leader and would like to try REZL then please get in touch with us…we would love to work with you.

Surface Acting – it’s draining, frustrating and “disempowering”

I observe that many studies investigating “job satisfaction” utilise measures based on the Maslach Burnout Inventory.  This scale measures a number of discrete aspects that impact on job satisfaction; typically including autonomy, achievement and “emotional exhaustion” which may arise from “surface acting”.

Yet some years ago I surveyed a large staff group within a high-tech venture to ask what they wanted most from their work – the clear answer was recognition and responsibility.  Of course these employees were “empowered technical experts” – confident in their work and in their future.  Yet even here I can see that “autonomy” could code for responsibility and “achievement” would bring recognition.

(In fact back in the 1980s some software engineering books advocated “egoless programming” environments; so that groups would be more open about bugs…  however,  my own experience is that this issue was more relevant in “big company” Data Processing departments where concealment avoided retribution.  In entrepreneurial high tech environments,  I have found that most “techies” are keen to be associated with pieces of technology – and that encouraging such ownership means that they are always keen to right any problems.)

So, I understood the relevance of the autonomy and achievement measures – but what of “surface acting”?

Surface acting is when a person has to fake (or suppress) emotion or reaction to meet certain social or work rules.  Clearly a shop worker or a flight attendant may have to be very patient with a rude or demanding customer.  But where surface acting is most draining is when an employee feels unable to express their  opinions or to articulate their frustrations to colleagues or to managers – usually to avoid conflict or the risk irritating a superior (…leading to career ramifications).  In the longer term this can cause disempowerment and cynicism – and it is emotionally exhausting.

Yet, by becoming more resilient through developing mindfulness, employees can become more able to understand the “point of view” of others (e.g. of their employer or their manager).  The mindful employee will be able to  recognise that certain situations or issues may cause them to feel frustrated or disenchanted and they will become more able to control these reactions.  That’s not to say that employees shouldn’t speak up if they are unhappy or concerned – but again, to be effective, such feedback to a manager is best done in a clam and unemotional way.

So it seems that being more open, more able to empathise and building the skills to “avoid knee jerk emotional responses” really does reduce the need for surface acting; and hence can significantly improve job satisfaction.

Mindfulness for Change Management Programmes

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who is the CEO of a large retail organisation in the UK – with tens of thousands of employees.  As many of you will be aware, the shape of retail is changing very quickly now; so retailers need to be able to adapt rapidly to new consumer demands, buying habits and service expectations.  It seems the only thing that isn’t changing is the need to embrace change itself!

With this in mind I went back and looked a number of case studies and research publications investigating the impact of mindfulness training in support of large change management programmes.

These studies from “change management initiatives” demonstrate that training in mindfulness makes employees:

More open to new ideas – less resistant, less anxious, less denial

Better able to deal with stress and challenges

Improved self-confidence and self-esteem – to embrace change

Mindfulness studies showed: –

  • 83% said meditation helped them through a significant change (processes, systems and jobs)
  • Those who rated their resilience as “High” increased from 10% to 70%
  • Those who rated their ability to handle stress  as “High” went from 11% to 66%
  • Emotional awareness (11% to 89%) positivity (16% to 84%) feeling in control (28 to 72%)
  • Prevents loss in trust and increase in job satisfaction

Moreover, it turns out that the major issues that reduce job satisfaction are:  “difficult relationships”, depersonalization (lack of control) and lack of personal accomplishment – especially as “change” may wash away the work and processes that staff have previously strived to implement or to master.  Yet mindfulness has been shown to improve each of these aspects.

So using “mindfulness to build resilience” must be a key activity when preparing for a period of corporate change.