The path of least resistance

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From a very early age, we all acquire the mind-set that ‘teacher knows best’ and that older/bigger (ie. perceived by us as more powerful) people have better answers than we do. Our education, our experience of being parented and our interactions with other people as we grow up all serve to re-inforce this world view. This is not to deny the value of teachers or parents! We must all learn how we can better ourselves, how to socialise and fit in with our culture and society. But what can and does happen is that we begin to take another’s viewpoint as being the undisputed truth, another’s information as being correct, and another’s ideas as being better than one’s own. In other words, it can slowly erode an individual’s capacity for thinking for themselves, for voicing their own views and for taking responsibility for their own choices and actions.

This is a recipe for human mediocrity that is repeated from one generation to the next. As a generalisation, when one is in charge, it is easier to tell than to ask, and when one is subordinate in some way, it is easier simply to be told what to do – there’s no thinking necessary, no need to take responsibility – it’s the path of least resistance. I am not saying that in some situations this isn’t the most effective way of behaving (in emergencies, where rules must be followed etc), but it is far less effective when ownership, responsibility, learning, and collaboration are needed. And as the world grows ever more volatile, complex and ambiguous, it is the latter we need more than ever before.

In organisations, structures have become far more open and fluid in the last 20 years due to technology, with a rapid rise in service and knowledge industries. Even in manufacturing, most of the physical work is done by machines. As the saying goes, with every pair of hands you get a free brain, and increasingly we need those brains far more than the hands. However, management practice is lagging behind and is still geared somewhat to the utilisation of the hands (tell people what to do and stay in power/control) rather than utilising the brains (draw out new ideas and talent from other and share power – or even give it away). This is of course a human trait, not just a management one and it goes very deep into our collective psyche. It is why organisational and societal change can be so difficult – you can have all the fancy new systems and processes you like, but if those in control don’t personally embrace risk, ambiguity and vulnerability in the face of change, no-one else will either. This is at the heart of leadership, and it is not about behavioural change, it is far deeper than that – behaviour is in the outer world (what people say and do) but the heart of leadership lies in the inner world of intention, values and personal vision. When a powerful intention and commitment to achieve organisational goals is aligned to values and culture, then lasting change take place. Unfortunately, this alignment is very often missing in organisations, and to achieve it means moving the organisation from:

  • Risk aversion towards experimentation
  • Rank and status towards relational partnerships
  • Rules and procedures towards flexibility and collaboration
  • Chains of command towards personal responsibility
  • Opacity and control towards transparency and distributed authority

Clearly this can be a major culture shift and easier said than done. However by encouraging managers at all levels to adopt more of a coaching style, the shift can happen naturally. Some managers will find this easier to do than others and there still needs to be an appropriate balance between leading, managing the business and coaching staff to draw out their innate talents in service of the business. Get this balance right, and there emerges a virtuous circle of increasing energy in the direction of a learning, high performance organisation.

When these three pillars (leadership, management and coaching) combine they create a great platform for a performance culture. Historically however the management pillar has always been the most prominent. Ask a group of managers how they spend their time at work and 80% of them will say that they spend 80% of their time managing – allocating resources, measuring performance, sorting out disputes, monitoring procedures, dealing with financials and targets etc. This is a bit like a football team playing the game but actually watching the scoreboard all the time! Yes, there have to be some rules of course, but great results lie in playing the best game possible at the time, not worrying about the score. This is where the line manager can have a very significant impact on personal and team performance. By encouraging their staff to think for themselves, to take responsibility for decisions and to share knowledge and learning widely, managers will begin to create an environment where people can thrive, do great work and feel good about their achievements and about themselves. This is the kind of working environment where people want to work and give of their best.

For managers, this means letting go of some control, and moving away from the old idea that managers should know more than their staff. They shouldn’t. A line manager’s job is to make sure that their staff learn by every means possible and finish up knowing more than they do. Their job is to maximise performance, to facilitate effective teamwork and to nurture talent, even if they realise that many people in their team have more talent than them! There will often be initial resistance, even reluctance, from staff. Just as the line manager needs to let go, so staff will need to step up to the plate. The concept of thinking for oneself, of being responsible for the consequences of one’s actions, of actually showing up with courage and commitment – this can be daunting for the reasons discussed earlier. It’s easier to fall back to the path of least resistance. For this reason, coaching development programmes should be well thought through, comprehensive and strategically positioned in a long-term change programme. A ‘sheep-dip’ approach to coach training won’t generate sufficient energy for change to escape the ‘gravitational pull’ of the old ways.

In fact, it is useful to consider the energy for change coming from three places:

Organisational Culture - Systemic energy:

This is the energy for change generated in the organisation through the shifting values and culture as younger people join the organisation. The new generation are much less accepting of the old ways of management, much less susceptible to manipulative power plays and much more vocal about what they want and need from a job. They are likely to be better educated, more culturally diverse and have higher expectations than previous generations of employees. The challenge is to create organisations where such vibrant young talent can emerge and blossom in consort with older perhaps less adaptable colleagues, who by dint of their age are more likely to be representative of the management. There will therefore be both ‘pull towards’ and ‘push against’ energy and the role of OD/HR/Talent professionals is to maximise the former and minimise the latter to facilitate change.

Coachee Readiness - Pull energy:

Most coaching training initiatives focus almost exclusively on the management population, to give them the skills to coach effectively in the line. However this is only one side of the equation. Employees – those who will the coachees – need to understand the benefits to themselves, how coaching fits into organisational strategy and how coaching will work in practice. Without this groundwork to educate and enrol staff into the coaching process, it can appear as a manipulative, even cynical management ploy to squeeze more performance out of staff without paying more. In fact, of course, coaching is a way of releasing potential, enriching individuals’ work experience, enhancing relationships and helping people feel more fulfilled, more capable and more in control of their working lives. This inevitably improves performance, but the benefits to individuals in terms of their personal satisfaction and enjoyment are also very clear.

Coach Maturity - Push energy:

All leadership, management and coach training initiatives will inevitably provide a push energy. This does need to be managed otherwise it can inadvertently cause problems. A typical scenario might be a group of managers just back from a leadership training week, fired up with new enthusiasm to apply their new found leadership skills on their teams, who for the most part will roll their eyes and hope that the boss will recover their normal behaviours soon, as currently they are ‘just acting weird’. The same applies to coach training – new behaviours should be integrated at a pace appropriate to the coachee, to match their own energy for taking more responsibility. A well-managed pace and flow of energy is typically evident in a carefully considered strategic coaching intervention or change programme.

A coaching culture is one where everyday conversations are robust, collaborative, and performance focussed, all within a supportive and learning-oriented environment. Information flows freely and openly towards those who require it rather than those who seek to control it. We must all make the effort to embrace a new paradigm for organisations which allows energy to flow, for people to express their unique and extraordinary talents and for joyful, engaging workplaces that nurture possibility, risk and collaboration rather than stifle it. We must not always follow the path of least resistance.