The art of letting Go

In one of the previous blogs we discussed the transition in the field of management: from so-called “directive” to “facilitating” leadership. Managers are not the people who tell the team what to do, “make it perform” and “get the results.” The starting point is that the team can do that very well itself. Provided a number of conditions are met. For example, there must be clarity about the objectives, the team must be complete and there must be a clear division of tasks. The focus is on every individual coming into his or her own and that there is psychological safety so that the team can develop freely.

What often comes up in discussions about facilitating leadership is that managers should be able, and dare, to “let go”. Does this mean that you are not interfering with anything anymore? That you let everyone have their own way, and see what that leads up to?

That is by no means letting go. But for managers who are used to planning, directing and controlling it may feel like that. Because it’s a habit. And habitual behavior is persistent: even though you believe that working differently is good, it feels uncomfortable, and maybe even scary, because you’re not used to it. Which is why it is a good thing to consider what letting go exactly is in a management context.

To this end, we make a distinction between “desire” and “intention”. They are two states of mind, or attitudes, that are very similar but differ in one important aspect.

Desire
With a desire you are attached to the result you want to achieve. That means that you experience positive emotions when that result is achieved and negative emotions when it is not. Compare it to a child who has set his sight on the latest game console for his birthday: the greater the desire, the greater the joy or disappointment when the wish is or is not fulfilled. The intensity of the emotion is directly proportional to the intensity of the desire.

Intention
When you are not attached to the result you want, then there is an intention. When you act from intentions, your attitude is open to the results that emerge. You do have a result in mind (the intention), but you are not emotionally affected by the actual result because you are not attached to it. This makes you accept the result as it is. You do not resist the outcome. But that does not mean that you are apathetic or that you will give up. Because you remain open and curious about further possibilities and what to do next – and as a result you create agility and creativity …

In daily management practice, many things are not going as well as planned or budgeted. Viewed from the perspective of desire, they all harbor disappointments.

Disappointment is a form of resistance to reality. People who act from intentions do not have that resistance. They accept the results and will therefore look at them more freely. As a result, they are better able to see how things can further be improved: the lack of desire and resistance automatically means an open mind and a creative attitude: “OK, this is what we have achieved, why and how do we make it better?”

Management
The difference between “directive management” and “letting go” is comparable to this. You put together your team. Obviously there are objectives. You want to go somewhere. And you give the team the autonomy to decide how they are going to achieve that goal and what actions they will to take. If necessary, you give advice. And you coach the team members. But then you “release” them to do the work. And you wait and see what the results of their actions are. With an open mind: your intention on the goal, and accepting what is to come.

Attitude
The difference between both management styles is a small difference in attitude. There is no difference in ambition level. The attitude of “letting go” ensures that the team can freely do what it does best. It leads to a world of difference in spirit within teams, motivation of those involved and responsiveness of the organization.

Why do you do the things you do?

Responsive organizations have the ability to change from within. You could call that organic. Change is not managed, but inspired. There are four starting points to realize this. They are about people, their motivations and mutual relationships.

First of all, the people make the difference – not the plans, structures, KPIs or work processes. It is the task of leadership to allow people to come to their own in a safe environment. This is not about directive leadership that tells people what to do, but ‘facilitating leadership’ which is based on autonomy, responsibility and motivation. A third premise is that there is no uniform formula, method or approach for success: every organization finds out for itself what its unique potential is and how it can be realized. And finally, they rely on the belief that people have a tremendous capacity to contribute to change, provided you address their intrinsic motivation.

Golden Circles
In many discussions with clients about their mission and positioning, Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circles” come up. These circles are about the “Why”, “How” and “What” of an organization.

The stronger the “Why” of a company, organization, or person, the stronger its energy and appeal. In his famous Ted Talk, Sinek explains that companies, organizations and people with a strong and clear “Why” achieve more and have a stronger attraction to other people than those who focus primarily on the “What” or “How”. He uses appealing examples from, among others, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King and computer company Apple.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circles

The art of connection
Simon Sinek’s “Why” goes deeper than the mere raison d’être of an organization. For leadership, the art is to connect this with the “Why” of their employees. In other words: their motives for their actions and decisions.

Facilitating leaders act from a strong awareness of their employees and their motivation. They intend to inspire and stimulate them, and get them moving together. In doing so, they create the conditions for positive change. Which works better, and is more fun, than telling people what needs to be achieved and how they must do it.

Good decisions with the wrong motive do not lead to the desired results
Often strategic decisions are taken that seem very good at first sight but are based on the wrong motive.

Example: companies such as Semco or Favi have made a name for themselves with self-managing teams. This led, among other things, to the disappearance of a lot of management at these organizations. Their approach was praised and copied by many other companies. Their argument often was: “We can save costs with this.”

Cost-effectiveness is important, but that was not the motive of the aforementioned organizations. It was the conviction that people in the workplace are perfectly capable of planning, organizing and executing their work. For themselves and together. No manager had to decide on that. That motive was the foundation for successful change in these examples. But when the motive is all about costs, that becomes the focus of change. It will not improve the way the organization performs. On the contrary: changes made with the wrong motive rarely lead to good results.

The litmus test
So the “why” is about the intrinsic motives of organizations just as much as it is about people’s behavior. Try it out when you speak to an applicant again. Or suppliers who pitch for your business: ask people why they do the work they do or why they have made certain decisions. TheIr answer immediately gives a good idea of ​the kind of people you are dealing with. I once had to choose between three research agencies for a global market study. I asked all three contacts why they were doing this work. Two thought for a moment and repeated their sales pitch. It was about “added value”, “insights through research”. All true, but it was not an answer to the question. Besides that, what they told me I already knew from their websites. Their answers made them look similar. And above all: they did not inspire me. On the contrary! The third person replied immediately and from the bottom of her heart, “Theo, that’s very simple. I just love to do research and understand data. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” In this simple answer, the motivation and energy were palpable. I did not have to think long about choosing this party. This resulted in an inspiring collaboration that lasted a long time and provided our company with a lot of “data-driven” insights.

2,600 years ago Buddha already spoke about this. One of the pillars of his teaching is “the right intention” or “the right motive”. People like Simon Sinek make us understand better that this is a universal principle that helps to realize coherence in organizations and achieve great results. Why do you do the things you do?

Monkey See. Monkey Do.

Psychological safety is something people must experience.
Anyone who has children will agree: children copy what you do. Because your behavior as a parent is exemplary. This is a natural principle. It is stronger than words: you can explain to a child that it has to tidy up his room. But if you always make a mess of it yourself, that becomes reference. Not the words, but the deeds. It is no different in organizations.

Psychological safety
There is growing attention for psychological safety in organizations. An organization is psychologically safe, when people feel accepted and included by it. This is reflected in, among other things, employees who are open about their opinions and ideas. And colleagues who are inclined to admit mistakes – because the organization stands behind them and helps them solve problems.

This attention arose specifically after a study by Google into the effectiveness of teams. A few years ago they researched 180 teams, with the question: how can you develop the perfect team? Psychological safety emerged as the basic condition for well-functioning teams: people must experience their team and organization as “safe”. Only then will they take “risks.” Such as expressing their opinion. Or experiment. And – inevitably – make mistakes to learn how to improve things. That’s how teams and organizations learn and grow.

Are you serious?
Psychological safety is therefore a precondition for developing responsive organizations. Here lies an important task for management. But how do you do that?

For this, employees first look at their management: to what extent are they serious when it comes to psychological safety? Is it just words or also actions? Example behavior is of the utmost importance here to confirm that the organization is really safe. Or not.

In addition, managers should refrain from using their position of power to “enforce” certain behavior. Because that is the ultimate signal for employees that the organization is not safe – and people will hide back into their shell, in one way or the other.

Ford
The book “Insight1” gives a good example of this dynamic: in 2006 Ford Motor Company was in a deep crisis. Ford had lost 25% market share in the previous 15 years, and that year the company lost $ 17 billion. The new CEO, Alan Mulally found a deep-rooted culture of fear in which people put their careers above the interests of the company. Needless to say there was much resistance to change. Mulally wanted to transform the corporate culture, starting with his executive team. He encouraged members to be open about anything that went wrong. To his surprise, managers continued to report stubbornly positive about their activities. Week after week. Despite the huge losses, nothing seemed to go wrong ….

1 Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves And Why The Answers Matter More Than We Think, Tasha Eurich, 2018

The reason for this was the deep-rooted culture of fear, in which mistakes were not tolerated. No one ever felt safe reporting problems under the former CEO. Until a manager could not escape reporting a major problem with one of the new models, which meant that production had to be halted temporarily. The person in question had actually already prepared mentally for his dismissal after the meeting. But Mulally complimented the manager on his openness and asked the other team members how they could help.

This made it clear to the team that it was truly safe to face facts, discuss problems and resolve them together. This exemplary behavior turned out to be the “turning point” in the culture that Mulally had been pursuing for months. And that contributed to Ford’s recovery, which returned to profitability in 2009 in the midst of the economic crisis. Incidentally, at that time the only one of the big three car manufacturers in the United States.

Seize the moment with exemplary behavior
You can of course include psychological safety in the values ​​of your company. You can communicate about it and tell people how important it is. However, it will only exist if and when it is experienced by the organization. And especially at times when that safety matters. For example, when something goes seriously wrong, when someone comes up with a seemingly absurd idea or in a conflict situation. At that moment you as a manager have the opportunity to seize the moment, with the behavior that you propagate. As with raising children, psychological safety must be demonstrated.

Balance your team with five principles

The blog ‘In the flow’ discusses the first step to developing responsive teams: creating the circumstances which help every employee to come into their own. Here it is also discussed how you can practically map out to what extent people are in the right place in their team:

Example of mapping of team members

Coherence
Once this is done, you want the team to start moving together. What is needed for that? Numerous books have been written on team performance and leadership. In that regard, there are many roads that lead to Rome.

But at the basis of all teams are five systemic principles. When these are met, a team can perform in balance. Systemic principles directly contain the root causes of the behavior, the results and symptoms of (im)balance in any team. And these you can observe like the tip of an iceberg: the systemic principles lie beneath the surface of the water.

  1. Clear goals
    Just as a vision & mission give direction and energy to an organization, clear goals give direction and inspiration to a team. This seems to speak for itself. Yet there appear to be many teams for which it is not clear what exactly they want to achieve with each other. What they do every day may be clear, but a lack of inspiring goals leads to a lack of energy and inspiration.
  2. Complete team
    Every team in an organization needs to fulfill a certain number of roles. Just like any sports team has a certain number of players, each with their own position and role. In the blog ‘In the flow’, we discuss how important focus is for employees to come into their own. When the necessary roles in teams are not properly filled, employees rarely succeed in achieving their full potential, simply because there is insufficient time and space to focus properly. This also applies in the event of overcrowding the different roles in a team.
  3. Division of roles
    When the roles are not clearly divided and there is no proper order of responsibilities, an imbalance arises. For example, people “sit in each other’s seats” and take on tasks that actually do not belong to them. Think of the manager who is too actively involved in the execution. Or vice versa: an employee who makes decisions for which she is actually not authorized. The demarcation of roles, tasks and responsibilities provides clarity and overview. An important task for facilitating leaders is to help people make them clear and help team members adhere to them.
  4. Recognition of history
    Everything that happens in an organization has a cause and an effect. This applies to successes and setbacks. Organizations generally have little difficulty in acknowledging their successes. This is different with setbacks. And when these are “shoved under the carpet”, it drains good energy from the employees involved. Example: a manager of a team is suddenly fired. No clarity is given to the team about the reason. Chances are then that no successive manager will have a good chance of being successful. Simply because, systemically, there is still something in the way. Only when clarity is given to the team about the causes of the dismissal, and both the team and the dismissed manager receive the recognition they deserve, can the team move on.
  5. Balance of give and take
    In every team people come to get and bring something. In energetic, well-functioning teams this ‘ give and take’ is in balance. Ideally, people go home with just as much energy at the end of the day as at the beginning. When people give too much (energy) and do not get enough in return, symptoms such as fatigue or stress kick in. People who have trouble staying in their role (see principle #3) and hardly dare to say “no” often suffer from this. But there can also be an imbalance in people who can say ‘no’ very well – for example because they are structurally dissatisfied with their role. When one of the other systemic principles is not properly adhered to, it often shows first in the balance of give and take.

Systems seek balance – if necessary with unpleasant symptoms
Building responsive organizations is a bottom up process. It starts with seeing to it that employees take the right place in their teams. Subsequently, justice to the (universal) systemic principles of team effectiveness must be done. When a team is not in balance, all kinds of symptoms arise. For example, a high turnover rate of people. Often, management tends to address these symptoms. For example with an employee satisfaction survey. Or an “employer branding” campaign. However, as long as the systemic cause of the symptom in question is not resolved, the imbalance will remain. Such symptoms are what fever is in the flu: a reaction of the system to find its balance. Because systems seek their own “balance”. If necessary with unpleasant symptoms.

In the flow

Your organization wants to become more responsive. To this end, the vision & mission have been thoroughly revised, a strategic plan has been developed. In short: the “why”, “how” and “what” have been established. Everything has been shared with the employees, their feedback has been processed and there is wide support. How do you know whether your organization is able to make the plans come true? Where do you start then?

The basis
An organization or team can only perform well if a number of conditions are met. The basis is that every individual can come into his or her own. Compare it to a football team: one or two players who do not play in the right position or have an off-day, can destroy the performance of the entire team.

How can you create the conditions that allow employees to come into their own?

Flow
If you achieve your full potential, often you are in a state of “flow”. You become so absorbed in your activities that you forget the time. In such a state you feel great and perform best. We have all experienced that at one time or another. The concept of “flow” was invented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

Characteristics
He described the characteristics of flow in his book: “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience”. We will not consider all of these characteristics here, because several are the result of a state of flow. For example, the lack of a sense of time or a strong sense of well-being. We focus on the four characteristics that can be influenced: willingness, ability, focus and feedback:

  1. Are people doing what you want to do? This is about people’s motivation. If the organization’s vision, mission and objectives are aligned with this, people have found a place where they can spend their ambitions and energy well.
  2. Are people doing what you can do? Does the job fit well with the talents and skills? If people are not challenged enough, they will get bored. When too much is asked of them, they get stressed.
  3. Can people focus well on their tasks and responsibilities? For some organizations, “death by meeting” or “death by email” applies. Or there is so much uncertainty about the demarcation of responsibilities that people are too busy with each other’s tasks. Constant distraction does not improve the quality of the work or the well-being of employees.
  4. Continuous feedback is important to keep people engaged and motivated. They need to know how they are doing and how they can improve. This is not about the (semi)annual appraisal: if feedback is continuous and properly applied, it is also a mechanism that improves the quality and spirit in the team.

Get it going
The aforementioned factors help people to get into their flow. The starting point is mapping the position of each employee on them. So there is a clear picture for each team which employees are in the right place or not. The following diagram is a summary example of what such a mapping might look like. Other HR factors could also be included, like in this example the fit with the team or the professional maturity of team members:

Example of mapping of individuals in a certain team

A number of things become clear immediately. For the entire team, the feedback must be improved: there is too much orange or red here. The employees do not know enough about how they are doing. On an individual level, a number of other things become clear: Melissa does what she wants to do, but still has a lot to learn (“Can” and “Professional Maturity” are both not good yet). For Brian and Julie the question is whether they fit into the team. Brian has the capabilities (“Can” is green), but does he really want this role? And for Julie, she is doing what she wants, but, at least for now, is lacking skills or capabilities.

From this overview, the team can develop and grow. For example, based on the personal development plans of each employee and a plan for the team, possibly supplemented with a change in team composition. Now, each individual can come into his or her own and alignment is obtained with the whole of the organization.

The next step is to make sure every team is functioning properly. In other words: flow at team level. That’s what next week’s blog will be about.

Slow is fast

The holy grail of (tech) trends
Big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been the big promises in the business world for some time, with tech giants such as Google and Amazon as great examples. Yet recent research among 85 “Fortune 1000” companies shows that, despite significant investments, the use of Big Data and AI is not yet leading to the expected improvements (Harvard Business Review, February 5, 2021, Why is it so hard to become a data-driven company?, Randy Bean): only 24% of the companies surveyed indicated that they were “data-driven”. In the same study a year earlier this was 38%. The importance of “big data” and AI in decision making is not yet as great as expected.

What is striking is that – for the fifth year in a row! – “Cultural barriers” was cited by 92% of the companies surveyed as the most important obstacle in the development towards a “data-driven” organization.

The promise of innovation …
The realization of promising trends or new management methods is usually more difficult than expected. Well-known examples are the rise of office automation in the eighties, the internet, and “agile” working. There is a systematic underestimation of the time and effort required to implement new ways of working and then use it effectively. In the examples mentioned, the promise was largely correct: office automation has resulted in an enormous efficiency improvement. Thanks to the internet, many business processes can continue as usual in Corona time. And agile working is commonplace within many ICT companies. But for all these developments, the realization of the promise usually took longer than initially expected. And the organizational culture was often cited as an important bottleneck. Apparently people become so enthusiastic about the promise of innovation that the same mistake is made over and over again: an implicit assumption arises that the benefits are so great that success will almost come naturally…

… and the prospect of great results
I have experienced this firsthand. During a “global meeting” of division managers of a multinational I presented a strategic change plan. The presentation had been preceded by months of preparation and coordination. Much time had gone into the way the message was conveyed. And apparently it had worked: the reactions were enthusiastic without exception. “This is a homerun,” I thought. The support for the plan was so great, it only seemed a matter of rolling it out.

This assumption turned out to be completely false. We, too, were blinded by the promise of the plan, inspired by the beautiful prospect of the results we would achieve. Consequently, there was no insight into what was really needed to achieve success while using the existing culture. I later learned that there was insufficient understanding in the organization for the initiative: it had to be explained better. It was only after I had visited branches all over the world to engage people that support grew for the plans and the roll-out gained traction.

Culture is a breeding ground…
Every organizational culture has a unique potential. And that is the breeding ground for success. The question is therefore not how you bring about change despite the culture. The trick is to use the culture – the people with their beliefs, ambitions and behavior – for the intended change. Therefore it is important to understand the causes of resistance and friction.

…not a barrier
“Action is reaction” is what I learned during the Physics lessons in high-school: the force you exert on something leads to the same, opposite force. This law of nature also applies to organizational cultures: the harder you blame them, the greater the resistance, because somehow people feel not understood, and affected in their authenticity and free will.

In this light, the conclusion of the aforementioned study should read: “Apparently, companies have insufficiently organized for success while they were planning the transformation to a data- or AI-driven organization.” So that support and energy could be generated to use data and AI for what they are intended: improving business operations. and realizing competitive advantages.

If there is a ‘Holy Grail’ it ought to be culture
It is not the promise of new technology or new management methods that is the holy grail. If there is one, it ought to be culture: the unique potential of people: they determine the degree of success of any initiative.

The promise of big data and AI is true, at least to a large extent. Moving As One also makes good use of it, to help clients with their change projects. But that promise can only be fulfilled by the organization.

“Slow is fast”
Entrepreneurs and managers who see this make good use of it. And yes, it takes time and a lot of patience to understand how you can take everyone along and set the flywheel of change in motion. But once it is moving well, improvements can emerge suddenly and rather quickly. Or, as the world-famous coach Stephen Covey once put it: “With things, fast is fast. But with people, slow is fast.”