Tops, Middles, Bottoms
Are you the same kind of leader at work that you are at home? at church? with your friends? If you’re like most people, probably not. Why is that? Most people have a picture of the “power structure” at work that influences the way they behave. This picture is remarkably the same for almost everyone.
Our picture: The people at the “top” tell everyone what to do, the people in the “middle” try to get the people at the “bottom” to do what the “top”wants, while struggling to get the “top” be clear about what it is that they want.
Sound familiar? There is a interactive exercise developed by Barry Oshry and documented in his book, Seeing Systems, Understanding the Mysteries of Organizational Life, in which people at all levels of the organization, when assigned to be a “top,” “middle” or “bottom,” play out this power structure role–even though they have a different role (and behave differently) in their own organization. It’s as if you put a group of people in a room and told them all that they were 5th graders–and they started acting like it!
This “picture” of the way things (should) work exists in most organizations, across organization boundaries, global cultures, and all organization sizes. The behaviors that go with these unconscious roles hold us all back. It makes the organization slow. If we accept these roles, it’s hard to get be excellent–organizationally or PERSONALLY.
Step Up, Step Out
If you don’t step up and step out, if you go along with the “way they do it,” then you aren’t standing out. People frequently err on the side of getting along and not challenging the status quo. How does that help the organization? How does it help your career? (It’s easier for managers to lay off the ones who’ve never been exceptional–solid and steady doesn’t get you very far for very long any more.)
I realize that I’m saying that you should take risks. Yep. And it’s really hard to take risks. Yep. So start with little risks. Instead of waiting till someone tells you what to do, figure out what you think should happen? If you were “king” of the company, what would you have happen? Just figure it out. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you did it? What would you do if that happened. What’s the best that could happen? Start with thinking it out. Turn off your “going-along” thinking and be proactive about solutions.
Just Do It
There is a reason that “It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission,” is so popular in organizations. It’s mostly true. My first, and for me, probably the most important, Executive, used to say over and over, “Make a decision. It is easier to fix a bad decision than to fix the damage from not doing anything. There are almost always several “right” decisions for every business problem–pick one and DECIDE.” I had already heard this mantra several times in the first three months that I worked for this guy before my first one-on-one with him. I had spent these first three months researching the details of a very serious problem and I was presenting the results of my research to him in this meeting. Looking back, I can’t believe how naive and unaware of organizational politics I was. My boss sent me to this meeting, fully knowing how bad it was, alone. I was about 15 minutes into the details when he stood up, looked at me and said, “You’ve made me sick at my stomach,” and he walked out. I was shocked. I sat there. I thought he was coming back. He didn’t. I waited probably 20 minutes and got up and left. I didn’t know what to do.
I waited about a week. I tried to figure out what to do. My boss was on vacation. I thought about the Exec’s mantra, “Make a decision.” This one wasn’t mine to make–it was his (or above). But I needed to figure out how to get him to make it. I walked into his office and asked when he wanted to finish our meeting. He looked at me, and said, “I don’t want to, but I guess we better.” We rescheduled and he listened to me all the way through. At the end of the meeting, he told me to figure out how much money it would take to fix it. When I did, he had me present to the entire Executive team and he persuaded them to fund it (it was several million dollars). I had a leadership role in implementing the fixes–way beyond my original job. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have had a role in it if I hadn’t walked into his office and pushed him for another meeting. I am sure the project would have happened eventually, later and without me.
It was a powerful lesson. I think if I had been in the organization longer, I would have adopted the “power structure picture,” and wouldn’t have done it. I would have waited for my boss to do it. Or whoever. I wouldn’t have learned the lesson that helped shape my career.
2 responses to “Lead from where you are”
As a leader in the organization who wants to encourage the team to “Step and Step Out” what are some key techniques to help break the pre-conditioned pictures that the staff have about traditional corporate power structure?
Thanks for the question Iain.
Since this behavior is mostly unconscious and unknown, the best way to start is with an experiential exercise that brings these thought patterns to the surface. I recommend reading the book, Seeing Systems (mentioned in the post), for some ideas. Awareness is only the first step, though. Once awareness is there, I recommend talking with your team about the ways that things can be done differently to change behaviors.
Stories help a lot–examples of times you stepped up, stepped out and failed/succeeded/learned. Encourage them to tell stories of times when they saw this work and not work. Helping them become aware of times when they actually behaved outside the norm and nothing bad happened will go a long way.
Remember, this thinking happens at all levels–even the top. So you will have to learn to reward step up/step out behavior–even, or maybe especially, when it results in mistakes. People will watch very carefully for signs that you don’t really mean it.
Think of this kind of change as equivalent to changing an organization habit. It is automatic at this point. When a person successfully changes a habit, she first becomes aware of the habit (let’s say smoking), she decides that she wants to change, she then has to make a conscious decision to not smoke every time she would automatically pick up a cigarette and smoke it without thinking. She has to overcome the irritation, the urge to go back, the unconscious urges to fall back to the norm. An organization needs to go through similar steps to change a habit, especially one as ingrained as the “tops, middles, bottoms.”
It is an effort, but it is well worth it. An organization where everyone is carrying their full weight and feels appreciated is pretty much unstoppable.