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When you spot something ineffective, strange or wrong in your employees or colleagues, you probably quickly assume that there is something wrong with their skills or intentions. It’s the False Attribution Error, one of the key cognitive biases. Rarely do leaders consider a more uncomfortable option: that you are CO-CREATING the behaviour through your own action or inaction.
This is a crucial point made by Siobhan McHale in her book “The Insiders Guide to Cultural Change”
I like to call this shadow-boxing, but I think perhaps Siobhan has a more elegant metaphor, that all behaviour is more like a dance than a solo performance. Sometimes it’s a pas-de-deux, sometimes its a line dance, or perhaps the Macarena. No matter how many people are involved, when we consider it a dance, we consider our own co-responsibility for what it going on. That’s the key point of system thinking. When you look at someone’s behaviour, you have to consider whether YOU are the one leading the dance and others are following.
Interestingly, leaders tend to bring out the opposite of their strengths in their employees.
- If you are decisive, you will continuously meet the challenge of employees that are NOT proactive or autonomous. They are waiting for you to decide, or, they never get a chance to decide because you make all the decisions unilaterally or too quickly.
- If you are are perfectionistic, you meet the challenge that your people are NOT quality conscious enough or deliver poor work.
- If you are friendly and empathetic, you meet the challenge that your people are constantly fighting with each other and not cooperating.
- If you are critical and objective, you meet the challenge that your people are naive, incompetent and overly cautious.
Of course, it has nothing to do with you. Behaviour is individual. People are just expressing their psychological preferences. NOT!
Four important rules of behaviour
- Behaviour is interactional and structured. We respond to each other.
- Behaviour is shaped heavily by culturally accepted codes to communicate and get things done.
- Powerful people have a significantly larger impact on culture and on interactions.
- Most people cannot see these patterns – it’s automatic.
The interactional patterns fall into 4 categories. People COPY the behaviour of high-status members of a group or organisation. People COPE with dominating or anti-social behaviours through adopting overly friendly or submissive forms of interaction. People RESIST dominating, anti-social (or laissez-faire leadership) through critical and sceptical behaviours including passive-aggressiveness. The common point is that these are responses to the behaviour shown by the most powerful people in the room.
Alternatively, people can CREATE new patterns. It’s much less common, but it is the foundation of my conception of Growth Mindset. When you create patterns together, you release yourselves from existing patterns, expectations and norms, and you create a more spontaneous, intentional, aware, suple, and lively dance. To succeed, powerful people, i.e, YOU need to
- become more sensitive to the music going on around you, rather than just the song in your head.
- notice and encourage the subtle attempts of others to break free from the existing patterns and create new interactions (e.g., speak up with clarity about negative quality issues)
- shape your own behaviour in novel ways rather than just follow the existing steps
- overcome the moment of doubt and self-consciousness that occurs in everyone when you dance a new dance
- reflect together and give feedback so that you can improve the new dance
Great dancing requires leadership AND followership. It’s a partnership, not a straight-jacket.
Author of Safe2Great, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset