“Why Can’t They Think More Strategically?” – Power and Goal Orientation

Have you ever complained that your staff aren’t strategic enough? Have you ever wondered why those who report to you seem slow to see the bigger picture or unable to cut through the minutiae and constant operational demands?

People in positions of power tend to be goal oriented. Research confirms that people with high power demonstrate greater initiative than individuals with low power, attempting multiple courses of action to realise their goals. They persist in their efforts to achieve their goals even in the face of obstacles. Empowered individuals tend to address obstacles and challenges directly.

Observing this we might conclude that individuals who have more structural or social power, have earned their position and its associated power because they are more committed, intelligent or resourceful. Makes sense, right?

The gap between how executives approach an issue and how their staff think about the same issue can be anathema to many leaders. Managers can also find themselves frustrated. “Why can’t they get it?” they ask themselves.

Several recent psychological studies suggest that high power individuals demonstrate a strategic perspective and behaviours because they are empowered, rather than vice versa.

Typically these research studies test individuals’ performance on a specific task before randomly assigning them to positions of high and low power and then measuring differences in goal-oriented and other behaviours. Any differences in behaviour are deemed to be a reflection of the power randomly assigned to individuals rather than individual attributes.

In a review of contemporary research, Pamela Smith and her colleagues conclude that “low power fundamentally alters an individual’s mental world.”

Let’s think for a moment about the practical implications of having or not having power.

Having Control

Common sense tells us that leaders have greater control over their decisions. They have a level of authority that allows them to exercise discretion. They can largely determine their own priorities. If you’re in a position of high power you don’t have to seek the approval of your manager as often and are probably less susceptible to someone else’s changes in priorities. This helps leaders and those with high power or independent resources to focus their attention and pursue their goals relentlessly.

In contrast, individuals with lower power are usually expected to be more responsive, to multi-task and shift attention to any new tasks assigned to them. Subordinate employees need to bear in mind what others think of their work. This means more of their energy is committed to maintaining an active radar on the peripheral environment.

This is consistent with findings that people with low power demonstrate higher levels of vigilance. They have difficulty filtering out distracting information unrelated to their goal. Studies show they attend to specific details at the expense of the bigger picture. Hence an apparent failure to think strategically and get above the detail.

Power and The Consequence of Our Decisions

For staff who report to a superior, the consequences of making the right or wrong decision are greater than for those who experience comparative autonomy. While those in leadership positions can attribute their failures to learning experiences, staff with lower structural rank are likely to be held accountable for their mistakes.

It’s hardly surprising that studies now confirm that people with low power spend longer making decisions.

And the pressure doesn’t stop there. Even when they do make decisions, they tend to demonstrate more ambivalence and uncertainty.

Impacts of Brain Functioning

Having or not having power actually has an impact on the brain’s executive functions. Impaired working memory, difficulty managing distractions and worse performance during complex tasks have been linked to having low power. Serotonin levels are also linked to an individual’s perceptions of their own power.

Being less flexible

Findings that having low power leads to being less flexible cognitively are interesting. How are we to interpret this? Perhaps people with low power are required to be so flexible already that they’ve used their flexibility quotient up! With so many resources committed to screening all available data, managing risks and responding to changes in other people’s priorities, it’s plausible that people with low power just don’t have the mental energy left to be even more flexible.

Smith suggests that individuals with low power are more likely to believe they are at the mercy of “situational constraints and circumstances, rather than their own goals and values, and view themselves as the means for other people’s goals.” In other words they don’t feel empowered when it comes to thinking and acting strategically.

The Impact of Social Heirarchies

Of course these studies have implications beyond hierarchical power. They illustrate some of the pressures that members of low status social groups operate under.

Take for example the pressures of relating inter-racially. It’s been shown that interracial interactions elicit stress levels that result in diminished performance. Members of stigmatized groups have been shown to demonstrate worse self-control in testing.

Failure to focus on goals and achieve high results may be a consequence of social marginalisation, rather than lack of individual commitment or effort.

Take the comparatively poor representation of indigenous people in mainstream employment for example. Low social status has a major bearing on how empowered these individuals feel to solve problems, tackle impediments and meet organisational expectations (and that’s before we even contemplate the impact of stereotypes, harassment and bullying in the workpace).

As I engage with the research on power and its influence on performance, it makes me think about how much I take for granted. As a coach, these insights are invaluable in working with executives and teams or members of the mainstream population who don’t struggle in the same way others might.

An understanding of power and rank dynamics is important for any organisation committed to a truly diverse workplace. In addition to understanding barriers to employment in the first place, an understanding of comparative power goes a long way to creating the conditions in which individuals can perform at their best. When employers understand the barriers that individuals in low power roles or from socially marginalised populations experience they can actively work to counter the legacy of low power and create the conditions that allow individuals to focus on the task at hand.

Reflection:

How would you rate your own power in the workplace?

How does this influence your capacity to focus on and achieve your goals?

What steps can you take to address some of the challenges or barriers that individuals with low power experience in attempting to achieve their goals?

 

Want to Learn More About Our Process-Oriented Approach to Coaching?

GCI

Coaching With Emergence & A Systems Perspective

At GCI  we are all about working with emergence, but what exactly do we mean by that?

Emergence is a characteristic of nature

It’s about what is beginning to happen. Emergence is about new growth, as well as what has had its time and is beginning to die back.  Sometimes these tendencies are so subtle or unexpected, it’s easy to miss them.

To see this principle in action, take a few minutes to sit in a garden and watch nature going about her business.  Pay attention to the leaves and flowers and insects and birds.  Things are happening all around you, right?  They didn’t start only when you arrived, and they won’t stop when you leave.  Just as there’s no moment when a flower begins to bloom, there is no point you can name where an event begins to happen.

Within the activity in the garden is an incredible momentum toward growth and there is also die back; letting go of what’s no longer useful or cannot be sustained.

Coaching with emergence includes a commitment to support conscious leadership that harnesses these deep principles.

One challenge of this commitment is accepting that we, as individuals, are not the center of the universe.  We have important contributions to make, but we are part of a larger system.  When we see ourselves as either central to or separate from our organisational or social system, we are in trouble.  Looking at the world stage right now, we see the consequences of this myopia.  Leadership based on narcissism wreaks havoc.

We build the acuity of our coaches.

Our coaches take a systems view of leadership and organizations.  We work with leaders to better understand what is emerging in their organizations, what growth needs to be supported and what needs to be cut back.

These principles are so important to us they underpin our E1ME2RGE3 Model of Coaching.

Catching the early indicators and flickering signals of what is to come requires mindful attention.  At GCI  we train our coaching students to discover and track these signals.  They learn to follow not just the content of their clients’ narratives, but also these subtle signs of emerging change.  This awareness is akin to the clarity that comes when you sit in stillness in the garden, observing the life teeming within it.

Invaluable Skills for Leadership

For leaders, this skill set brings access to rich and current information.  Being alert to the earliest signposts of change is invaluable.  It enables leaders to support the natural initiative and momentum within their workforce.  In an time of disruption, it alerts them to new trends and helps avoid nasty surprises.

Of course to recognize what is emerging, we must learn to look in often-overlooked places and also confront our own blindspots on occasions.  The coach’s role is to guide and hold the client in this enquiry.

In the mean time, why not pop out into a garden and become a student of nature again …

 

For more information on our accredited training workshops and online group mentoring program, visit our upcoming events page.

 

History is Not in the Past

As coaches, being aware of the many influences that shape our clients’ lives is critical.  These influences include social and historical experiences that aren’t apparent at first glance.  Along with several of our graduates, Vicki and I are preparing for a trip to Greece for a process-oriented seminar called Worldwork.  These seminars are organized every couple of years in different parts of the world, and involve hundreds of participants working on global and historical issues.

As I prepare for the trip, I recall a piece I wrote at the last Worldwork I attended, in Poland, in 2014.  Here it is.

Warsaw, 2014

For the last week I’ve been in Warsaw, on the facilitation team for an event known as Worldwork.  Delegates from twenty-eight countries gathered to discuss, understand and address current and historic global conflicts.

Before I left home, many colleagues were curious about my commitment to this event. They asked me, why open the painful wounds of history? why put yourself through all that trauma?

For me the answer is simple. To address global conflict we need to study in depth  the lessons that both history and unfolding events reveal.

Few conflicts develop overnight.  Many ignite against a background of centuries of struggle.  The pain is buried as soldiers come home from war and civilians try to piece their lives together.  In the wake of unbearable trauma, when peace is tentative, it can be too much to talk about what has happened.  While we have new models for addressing the impact of atrocities, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it also falls to later generations to pick up and continue the dialogue.  The hidden trauma of conflict and war carries on across generations.

The forces of conflict are intense.  Making smart decisions in the midst of turmoil is hard.  I suspect it’s impossible unless we understand – before we’re in a crisis situation – how rage and fear can collectively overcome us.  Behind these intense emotions is often the dream of something better, a deep yearning for change in our communities and the world.

Though we think of wars as part of history, the past is not only in the past.  The circumstances that shaped history continue to play out right now in our present world.  Oppressed communities dream of freedom and self-direction, while others experience the struggle for identity, for land or enough food to support themselves and their children.

Most of us not directly affected go about our ordinary lives believing we are immune to the pain of intense global conflict.   However, history has repeatedly shown that seemingly peaceful societies can find themselves in the midst of war or civil war at frightening speed.  Take the former Yugoslavia for example.

The Greek Delegates

History also shows us how dangerous it is when a group of people experiences being downed and unheard by the international community.  It creates a pressure cooker effect.  Greek delegates at Worldwork in Poland spoke about unemployment, hunger, and the worrying rise of neo-facism in their own country.  Rather than accepting growing violence as inevitable, their team will bring Worldwork to Greece in their continuing effort to engage and work out some of the tension and pain building in their country.

Of course conflict doesn’t just play out on the world stage.  It’s present in our individual lives.  We learn to persevere, despite tensions and conflicts in our communities, workplaces and families.  We get on with life.  One of the costs of not working these things out is we become desensitized to tensions or levels of suffering we’ve come to take for granted.

Yet it’s those tensions that are swept under the carpet, often in the name of momentary peace, that give rise to future conflict.  They smoulder, just waiting for the right moment to ignite.  Think about your own life.  What resentments are you carrying?  Who do you blame?  Who have you stopped speaking with?

If we’re to learn new ways of managing conflict, including the potential for violent conflict, we need to build that muscle in small ways.  I encourage you to be more like the Greek women from Worldwork.  Pay attention to the nagging or mounting tensions around you and address them if you can.

Reflections:

What nagging tensions do you ignore?

How does the past live on in your life?

Is there anything you need to re-visit in order to achieve greater peace in your world?

The DNA of Organisations

Edgar Schein, author of the ground-breaking text Organisational Culture and Leadership is fondly known as the grandfather of organisational development. Over the years Schein has begun to think and speak in terms of the DNA of an organisation, or its cultural genome.

Schein argues that we can’t simply transplant notions of how to improve culture from one setting to another. Instead we need to engage deeply with the inherent nature of the organisation. Not only do we need to know the organization’s structure, but also how it works psychologically and relationally. Coaches and consultants need to understand the process of an organisation.

Schein’s view makes absolute sense to process-oriented coaches. Our art is to engage with leaders in the midst of their transformational journey. We know it is fundamental to coaching effectiveness that we find out a leader’s mental models and uncover what is taken for granted within the organization.

Schein asks, “What are the things that, when we try to change cultures, turn out to be huge barriers?”

The Organization’s Growing Edge

As process-oriented coaches and organisational development practitioners we think of this as a great point of potential and growth. We call it the edge. This is a place where many leaders and teams may falter, but process-oriented coaches are like rock climbers highly adept at scaling the edge.

The edge is where our coaches come alive. They are skilled at exploringe edges from every angle; from within the moment when a leader is gripped by fear or from the mindful distance that offers a new perspective and insight. We climb with our clients, helping them gain new insights, as they prepare their organisation to cross into new and uncharted territory.

It is through the exploration of edges and other dynamic phenomena that the unique DNA of an organisation is revealed.

Yet edges are easily missed. Avoiding what is over the edge is so much part of an organization’s culture, people are usually unaware the edge is even there. In their efforts to maintain the status quo, leaders and teams tend to avoid edges, in favour of better known behavior.

A coach’s skill lies in their capacity to recognize and work with edges. We must catch the typical signs, such as sudden changes of topic, deflecting humor, nervous laughter, or just plain drawing a blank.

Despite their well-practiced avoidance strategies, we must hold our clients at this point of growth and enquiry. At the edge there will be resistance, in one of its many forms.

In our forthcoming Coaching with the E1ME2RGE3 Model and GCI Coaching Roadmap programs we will explore these ideas in greater depth. but for now let me ask you …

  • What are the common edges you encounter in working with clients on cultural change initiatives?
  • What have you discovered as unique to different organisations?
  • How do you hold these moments of discovery and potential?

Process-Oriented Coaching

As coaches we are consistently called to debunk the trap of being an expert.  Of course being an expert is seductive; it strokes our egos.

But we are called to put our egos and expertise aside.  We are here to honor our clients’ inherent wisdom, as it’s revealed through their emerging process; a dynamic, changing and shifting event.

We notice what is already trying to happen; the momentum that is present but momentarily thwarted within an organisation.

When we’re caught by our expertise, we lose our capacity to pay attention.  We focus on past successes rather than what is happening under our very noses.

A process-oriented approach to coaching means learning to be at ease when we don’t know what will happen next.  As well as following our client, we pay attention to what is happening within ourselves and within the larger systems we are part of.  We begin to notice things that are new, that may be mysterious and unexpected.

In organisational dynamics terms, we are curious about the unfreezing of systems.  As we observe the fluid processes within organisations, we support stuck or rigid practices to re-enter a state of flow.

Focus on the Emerging Flow

Much has been written about resistance to change within organisations and systems, but we are fascinated by the organic flow already at work.  Sometimes if that flow is suppressed, potential and initiative can break out in forms that look problematic.  Obstructed initiative is reflected in high staff attrition. Poor use of power results in conflict and protest.

Our ability to study these phenomena and understand what is happening in the background is fundamental to realizing organisational and social potential.

Process oriented coaches help leaders and teams to understand these dynamics.  This equips our clients to support those processes already emerging or trying to emerge within their organization.  When leaders are alert to their dynamic environment, transformation becomes possible.

Some questions to ask yourself:

    • What is dynamic and alive at the moment in your organisation?
    • What is dynamic in your own life?
    • How does this affect you?
    • Where is the flow frozen or stuck?
    • What do you notice about the quality of the stuckness?
    • Look closer … What is happening even within apparent stuckness?

Ready to learn more?  Join us in Melbourne, April 6-7.