Notes from the coaching room
How the history of management thinking can help leaders address challenges without blame
The management of change is the single issue most often discussed in our coaching sessions with leaders. This most stressful and demanding of current organisational experiences draws on the full range of leadership skills but it is perhaps the ability to navigate the change with individuals where most friction and difficulty occurs.
The development of thinking about management and leadership began with Fredrick Winslow Taylor in the United States around 1890. During his early career at the Midvale Steel Works in Pennsylvania, the largest in the world at that time, he was:
‘constantly impressed by the failure of his team members to produce more than about one-third of what he deemed a good day’s work’.
Taylor set about rectifying this by a thorough analysis of how long each task should take to complete, devising a new work process around his findings and then supervising the team to achieve the desired efficiency performance through the new process. Alongside the production line practices at Henry Ford’s car manufacturing plant, Taylor’s approach came to dominate early twentieth-century leadership and management practice under the banner of ‘Scientific Management’.
Protracted labour disputes through 1930s America demonstrated that this analytical approach required emotion and empathy to be successful when implementing the change with other people. A complementary school of management thinking emerged under Australian Psychologist George Elton Mayo which gave equal weight to human motivation, social relations and employee satisfaction in introducing change to achieve increased productivity.
This ‘Human Relations’ school of thinking can be seen entwined with Scientific Management in contemporary processes such as Lean Six Sigma where the engagement of teams is equally important as the design of the most efficient system in producing productivity gains.
What the history illustrates is a dilemma faced by leaders involved in change at a much more micro-level almost daily. How can a leader identify what changes to make, and how should a team member whose ways of working could stand improvement be told about it? There are any number of tools available but many amount to the same thing – a ‘problem-solving’ approach that might look like this:
- Identification of problem - the ‘felt need’
- Analysis of causes
- Analysis of possible solutions
- Action planning
Writing in the early 2000s, David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, Psychologists at an Organisation Behaviour School in Cleveland Ohio, pointed out that the implicit assumption behind problem-solving and the language used in the process sends a clear message to the individual that what they have been doing is ‘wrong’ and that it needs to be ‘fixed’. Alongside other thinkers in what came to be known as the school of ‘Positive Psychology’, Cooperrider and Srivastva developed an alternative which sought greater engagement of people by concentrating on where strengths exist in the current ways of working and the steps that can be taken to build on what is already good. They called this ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ and it may look like this:
- What works well?
- Have you seen something similar elsewhere?
- What worked there?
- Tell me about recent successes.
- Why was it a success?
- What did you do?
- What would it look like if it was perfect?
- What would be an ideal outcome?
- What would the perfect process look like?
- How would it make you feel to use that process?
- How could you make your dream come true?
- What would you need for the dream to be real?
- What three things can you do to get to your dream?
- How would you start?
- What will you do now?
- How are you going to make it happen?
- Who do you need to involve?
- How will you involve them?
- What’s the first thing you’ll do?
From the workplace to community settings, Appreciative Inquiry has become an established tool for engaging others in change in a way that identifies with the positive benefits of building on existing strengths, avoiding any sense of blame or criticism and doesn’t seek to ‘fix’ what is ‘wrong’.
Things for modern leaders to consider:
- How are you engaging people with change? What steps are you taking to help them to become active change-agents rather than reluctant passengers in the disruption of their established patterns of work? What can you do to make this change something more emotionally meaningful to the individuals than an intellectual exercise in gaining efficiency?
- How confident are you that you really know how everyone feels about the change? How have you gone about publicly recognising the difficulty it represents for them? Do you really know the new skills and abilities the change will demand of people? What have you done to support them through the personal turmoil that change brings?
- Have you taken conscious steps to acknowledge the good you need to retain in the new process? Does everyone identify with the change at an emotional level? What can you do to make it clear that everyone’s strengths are valued?
Xytal is the leading British consultancy developing leadership in the health sector. ‘Notes from the coaching room’ is drawn from our real experience of the issues faced by many leaders in improving their leadership practice. Get in contact with us to learn more. If you found this article beneficial, you might also consider checking out our Leadership Development programme.