Maintain disciplined attention

Different people within the same organization bring different experiences, assumptions, values, beliefs, and habits to their work. This diversity is valuable because innovation and learning are the products of differences. No one learns anything without being to contrasting points of view. Yet managers at all levels are often unwilling or unable to address their competing perspectives collectively. They frequently avoid paying attention to issues that disturb them. They restore equilibrium quickly, often with work avoidance maneuvers. A leader must get employees to confront tough trade offs in values, procedures, operating styles, and power.

That is as true at the top of the organization as it is in the middle or on the front line. Indeed, if the executive team cannot model adaptive work, the organization will languish. If senior managers can’t draw out and deal with divisive issues, how will people elsewhere in the organization change their behaviors and rework their relationships?

One of the most interesting missions of leadership is getting people on the executive team to listen to and learn from one another. Held in debate, people can learn their way to collective solutions when they understand one another’s assumptions. The work of the leader is to get conflict out into the open and use it as a source of creativity.

Because work avoidance is rampant in organizations, a leader has to counteract distractions that prevent people from dealing with adaptive issues. Scape-goating denial focusing only on today’s technical issues, or attacking individuals rather than the perspectives they represent – all forms of work avoidance are to be expected when an organization undertakes adaptive work. Distraction has to be identified when they occur so that people will regain focus.

When sterile conflict takes the places of dialogue, a leader has to step in and put the team to work on reframing the issues. She has to deepen the debate with questions, unbundling the issue into their parts rather than letting conflict remain polarized and superficial. When people preoccupy themselves with blaming external forces, higher management, or a heavy workload, a leader has to sharpen the team’s sense of responsibility for carving out the time to press forward. When the team fragments and individuals resort to protecting their own turf leaders have to demonstrate the need for collaboration. People have to discover the value of consulting with one another and using one another as resources in the problem solving process. For example, one CEO we know uses executive meetings even those that focus on operational and technical issues, as opportunities to teach the team how to work collectively on adaptive problems.

Of course, only the rare manager intends to avoid adaptive work. In general, people feel ambivalent about it. Although they want to make progress on hard problems or live up to their renewed and clarified values, people also want to avoid the associated distress. Just as millions of US citizens want to reduce the federal budget deficit, but not by giving up their tax dollars or benefits or jobs, so, too, managers may consider adaptive work a priority but have difficulty sacrificing their familiar ways of doing business.

People need leadership to help them maintain their focus on the tough questions. Disciplined attention is the currency of leadership.

Give the work back to people:

Everyone in the organization has special access to information that comes from his or her particular vantage point. Everyone may see different needs and opportunities. People who sense early changes in the market place are often at the periphery, but the organization will thrive if it can bring that information to bear on tactical and strategic decisions. When people do not act their special knowledge, businesses fail to adapt.

All too often, people look up the chain of command, expecting senior management to meet market challenges for which they themselves are responsible. Indeed, the greater and more persistent distresses that accompany adaptive work make such dependence worse. People tend to become passive, and senior managers who pride themselves on being problem solvers take decisive action. That behavior restores take decisive action. That behavior restores equilibrium in the short term but ultimately leads to complacency and habits of work avoidance that shield people from responsibility, pain and need to change.

Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy. Not only are many lower level employees comfortable being told what to do, but many managers are accustomed to treating subordinates like machinery requiring control. Letting people take the initiative in defining and solving problems means that management needs to learn to support rather than control. Worker, for their part, need to learn to take responsibility.

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