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SIR COPE – Leading when everything has fallen apart around us

Chalk by Menage a Moi via FlickrLeading during a disaster

Karl E Weick is one of the most profound psychological writers of all time but is a tough read.  An expert on dangerous work environments, he wrote out advice for leaders after 9/11.  His advice is relevant today and I’ve tried to render it below in simpler language and a more straightforward order.

Tragedy that leaves us confused and speechless

Karl E Weick writes about massive accidents where it is not quite clear what happened or whether it should have happened at all.  The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example.  The financial crash of 2008 is another.  Though hardly having the same consequences, England’s dismal performance at the 2010 World Cup is in the same class of bewilderment.  Let me try to explain.

We hate what we cannot explain

When the unexpected happens, we are at a loss to explain, and we hate that.  We like to be able to explain.  After a disaster, somewhat illogically, we have a strong impetus to explain.  Explaining won’t help us clean up but it will help us feel in control again.

Leading during mass bewilderment

In these cases of mass bewilderment, a leader has a double task – sorting out the mess, which is task enough, and helping us get a grip on what has happened and stop panicking.

This is Weick’s advice for leaders when we are startled by tragedies and the unthinkable.

Our three tasks following a disaster

  • Accept that you are startled too and that you have three tasks:
    • to do the practical things that need to get done
    • to console those who are hurt and hurting and
    • to help people start to make sense even though little makes sense to you either.

Watch for the fight/flight response

  • Also accept that our initial reaction is to rely on what we know.   We will use yesterday’s explanations and when those don’t make sense, we’ll use very simple ideas to feel in control.  Basically we will run (flight) or we will blame (fight).  We will take on the mantle of blamer or victim.

Once we start to think, we’ll over complicate solutions

  • As soon as we collectively realize that the problem is not going away, or that the people we blame cannot solve the problem anyway, we will start thinking.  At this point, we are likely to swing from the oversimplified (blame or be a victim) to the other extreme and over-complicate the solution.  Importantly, you need to remember that you are a member of your group and will share their ideas and its ways of thinking.   So, you too  will make this radical swing from fight/flight to overcomplicated!  None of us are thinking clearly but over-complication is a good sign because we have moved away from “just wanting the problem to go away”.

Think aloud to model how to involve everyone in finding a way forward that we all support

  • Your role now as leader is to think aloud.  I remember seeing a manual advising young officers in the Army not to think aloud.  Weick says we should think aloud for two reasons.  The rest of the group will think more clearly when they feel that we are all in this together and don’t have to worry if “it is just me”.  We’ll realize that there are no experts, no answers, and no guarantees.  And so we may as well pool our ideas, make a joint decision about what to do, take responsibility for collective actions.

As people start to grapple with understanding what happened, feed in resources for collective decision making

  • Once we begin working together to figure out what we are going to do and the price that we will pay collectively to solve our problems, the leader has the next task of feeding resources, not necessarily to solve the problem, but to help us figure out how to solve the problem.

Remember your role is to help the group think things out together

  • Above all else, the leader’s role is
    • to avoid personal paralysis
    • to ‘hold’ the confusions of others and let them know it is both OK
    • to reassure us that they we will come through this together and
    • to provide resources to keep the recovery moving.

SIR COPE

Weick gives us a useful 7 point acronym to think about leadership in bad times and good.  It’s rather aptly named SIR COPE

Sense is social

Sense isn’t there for the finding.  We create sense.  By talking to and with each other, we find out what meanings are possible and come to both shared understandings and agreements.  We aren’t wasting time when we are chatting.  We are working things out.

A wise leader encourage us to talk to each other.

Identity is remodeled

      Our first reaction when we are shocked and confused is to run or fight – to be a “victim” or “fighter”.

      When we mishandle our reactions to bad events, we can be locked into to these simple flight or fight reactions.  We have a lot more to us, though. We are sounding boards, witnesses, source of support and resilience, information hubs, story-tellers, companions, care-givers and historians.

      As we tell our stories from slighly different perspectives and for slightly different purposes, we move away from the simple roles of victim and fighter and develop an understanding of context that aids the explanations and understanding that allow us to move forward wisely and considerately.

      We, and all the leaders in the group, will be helping people have these multi-level, yet slightly confused conversations that are essential to move forward to the essential state of overcomplicated confusion that we need before we can move on.

      Retrospect provides a path to resilience

      One of the oddest features of human thought is that we don’t know what we think until we hear what we say.

      We begin to understand ourselves,when we hear what we say, when we hear the reactions of others, and when we hear the words they use when they are repeating our views.

      Leaders help people talk their way into resilience by listening to the words people are saying and helping them find other words that connect with human strengths rather than with darkness and evil.

      We repeat what they are saying so that they can see and hear themselves finding purpose and connection in an otherwise distressing situation.

      Cues need to be considered and incorporated

      We understand situations by creating a story from a handful of cues. And we look for cues that confirm our analysis.

      Sadly, we ignore a great deal.

      As a leader, we can help people incorporate more salient cues their stories and support them in those early moments when our stories get more complicated and more confusing.

      By considering the facts and alternative explanations more fully, we will find a better solution and way forward than if we jump prematurely to an early conclusion.

      Ongoing work on plausible stories aids recovery

      Even once we have a reasonable sense of what has happened and what we are going to do together to move on, we will still have to check, update and even revise our sense of events as we take collective action.

      As a leader, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels or allow other to languish in a half-finished story and the feeling, “Now we have it figured out.”

      Recovery is about workable, plausible stories of what we face and what we can do.  As we  act, the situation will change again and we should take into account new inputs and new opportunities and new setbacks.

      Part of the leader’s job is to keep summarizing how far we have come, what has happened, where we are at, how we feel now and the distance we have yet to travel.

      Plausibility about what happened and what will happen is our goal

      When the world appears to fall apart, we are desperate for an account of what happened.  We are less interested in what is accurate than feeling a gaping void of meaning. We want a plausible account quickly.

      That plausible account is not the end story though. It is only the first point from which we work to build the fuller story like a grain of sand in the oyster becomes a pearl.

      A leaders helps people get that first story and then helps them revise it, enrich it, replace it.

      Enactment allows us to think

      Most of all, in inexplicable times, we have to keep moving.

      Recovery lies not in thinking then doing, but in thinking while doing and in thinking by doing.

      None of us has the answer. Instead, all we have going for us is the tactic of stumbling into explanations that work, and talking with others to see whether what we have stumbled into is in fact part of an answer.

      As a leader, we help people keep moving and pay attention to everyone around them.

      When people are animated, their actions are small experiments that help make sense of perilous times.

      Wise leaders protect those constant little experiments that help us find wisdow in our dismaying situation.

      Weick made clearer?

      This is still a complicated rendition but Weick’s ideas are worth thinking through because frequently, it seems, we are in the middle of groups who’ve had the proverbial rug pulled out beneath them.

      Obama seems to be a master of the group recovery process.  I couldn’t help run Radio 5 commentary about our World Cup performance through this list.  They make the Social level but don’t seem to go much further.  We emote but don’t go very much further in developing a clear idea of what WE will do next.  There is no call to action even and no demand for us to be out there supporting the team next time.  No sense of action follows the phone-in periods.

      I think we could still make a simpler acronym without closing what Weick is trying to say.  Want to have a go?

        One Comment

        5 competences for space creators in our networked world

        Entrepreneur, leader, space creator

        The great desk tidy continues.  Professional organizational designers will instantly recognize what I am going to describe as Level 2 or C Band in Paterson parlance.

        Understanding what is needed when

        Let’s imagine a mechanic.  He, and increasingly she, has served an apprenticeship, gone to college, and worked on lots of cars under the supervision of experienced mechanics.

        A car arrives.  They look at it.  The learn of symptoms from the driver.  They make some investigations in a manner that any other trained mechanic would recognize as methodical (or haphazard).  They take action.

        From time-to-time though, the bundle of symptoms is out-of-pattern.  It may be a rare case that they haven’t encountered before   It may be a complicated case where feedback to the basic tests they carry out is obscured and muddies the decision making process.  The case may be complicated by factors not really to do with the car itself.  Spare parts might be short or the car might be needed in less time than the mechanics need to do everything as well as they would like.

        When the job becomes complicated, a more experienced colleague steps in “reads the situation” and explains the priorities to the skilled but inexperienced worker.  Now that they are oriented again to a set of tasks that they know how to do, they can pick up the task from there.

        In time, of course, they become experienced themselves and mentor others.

        Directing traffic

        In an organization, the role of the experienced worker is sometimes played by a controller who cannot do the job themselves.  The archtypical example is the Air Traffic Controller, who prioritizes aircraft and coordinates them with each other and resources on the ground.  The controller is not the aircraft Captain’s boss.  But does give orders of a kind.

        The intersections of networks

        In networked industries, the role of the controller is likely to become more common.  They may have rudimentary grasp of the skills they coordinate – they may have the equivalent of a light aircraft license, they could join in firefighting in elementary roles, they can do elementary electronics – but they are specialized in control.  They have the mindset to concentrate on what is in front of them for long periods.   They have good mental maps which they keep up-to-date.  They are important enough for psychologists to study them in depth.  Indeed many of the advances in applied cognitive psychology have come from studying air traffic controllers.

        And so it will be with “managers” of the future.  Though that term has developed so many connotations that we may have to drop it.

        We will have people skilled at managing “space” where people come together to get things done.

        People in this line of work will probably start early.  We will see them organizing conventional clubs at school, working online and developing mental models about how to create cooperative spaces in a networked world.

        Five competences for space creators in our networked world

        As I am on a great clean up of my paper world, I want to write down five competences that the “space creators” of the 21st century will have.

        #1 What needs to be done

        #2 Emotional energy to connect

        #3 Form a collective umbrella

        #4 Delegate tasks to protect the collective

        #5 Keep commitments to positive emotional space

        Sort of abstract but it follows a logic to be: what needs to be done, why are we bothered and how or why would this be our priority, what is the space that we need to work together, what are the important tasks to maintain this space and who will do them, are we having fun here?

        How do we learn these skills?  A post for another day, I think.  First, any comment on the competences?

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        Ask better questions about leadership! Lose the tired ideas about who is a good leader

        Are leaders made by their followers?

        The first time I encountered this idea was 25 years ago. It assaulted my classical training as a psychologist! It was very difficult to understand that no one is a leader.  All my training said otherwise!

        But we are leaders only by consent of our followers and in specific situations for a very short time.  Martin Luther King was a leader for a few years only.

        It is time to ask the right questions about leadership

        Over time, I came to understand that we had been asking the wrong question; and the wrong question was muddling my head.  The question “are leaders are born or made” belongs in the trash can.  I’ve put it there.  You can too.

        The right question is a sociological and anthropological. What role does “leadership” play in organizing society? What concepts do we use? Why do we use those concepts and not others?

        Why, in other words, are we hung up on the idea that some people are leaders and some people are not?

        Leadership in organizations

        As a work psychologist, I spend most of my time working in work organizations. We have been consistently mis-advising banks, schools, hospitals, factories, armies, shops, and every workplace that exists out there.

        Leadership resides in the followers

        Leadership does not reside in senior positions. Leadership does not reside in individuals. Leadership resides in the followers.

        There are times when all the right ingredients are present.  Someone is in the right place at the right time and it all comes together. As organizational consultants, our job is to help everyone in the organization to find this sweetspot.

        We chose a leader as a shorthand to tell the world about ourselves

        Leadership begins when people start talking to each other in what we call a bounded space. That is the workplace or a project. The people talking together look for a leader, not to tell them what to do, but to represent who and what they want as a kind of shorthand to themselves and to the world.

        A leader needs to be replaced regularly because after a while they aren’t a quick summary of what we want to tell the world

        The day a leader stops being representative of our collective wishes, either because s/he has stopped listening or because s/he no longer is what they want, then the relationship falls apart and force needs to be used to maintain the position of “leadership”.

        Why do we allow leaders to stay too long and use force against us?

        I suppose another sociological/anthropological question is when and why we allow leaders to run away with power and to use force against us.

        It has long been agreed in the democratic English speaking world that the essence of good government is replacing leaders in an orderly way.  I wish we could see the same as the standard in business organizations.

        The use of force against employees is a sign that the agreement is broken

        The use of force against employees is a sign that something has gone wrong. Alarm bells should go off.  And HR should be on the scene in a flash trying to understand why the leader believes so little in his or her people that s/he feels the need to bully them.  Young managers often don’t trust their subordinates. A skill that is rarely talked about is the skill of believing in one’s people and seeing their strengths.

        The job of HRM and work & organizational psychologists

        • Our job is to broker these agreements.
        • Our job is to coach the group during the inevitable shift in the agreement. How long should they carry on with the arrangement? When should they renegotiate?
        • Our job is to step in immediately force is used and declare a “state of emergency”!
        • Our job is to design organizational systems where leaders are replaced regularly. How long is a good time in the organization we help? How can we design the process of renegotiation and replacement of the leader?

        Leaders are only a shorthand to tell the world who we are and what we want.  We need to change them regularly and we need to manage the process to produce the leaders we deserve.

        3 Comments

        Are leaders made by followers?

        The first time I encountered this idea, around 25 years ago now, I found it an assault to my classical training as a psychologist.  Over time though, I have come to understand that the question of whether leaders are born or made is the wrong question.  The right question is a sociological and anthropological question:  what role does “leadership” play in organizing society and what are the different ways we use the concept?

        At an organizational level, I have become convinced that leadership resides in the followers.  There are times when someone is in the right place at the right time and it all comes together.

        The process begins with the people talking to each other in a bounded space, such as an organization.  These people talking together look for a leader, not to tell them what to do, but to represent who and what they want as a kind of shorthand to themselves and to the world.

        The day a leader stops being representative of their collective wishes, either because s/he has stopped listening or because s/he no longer is what they want, then the relationship all falls apart and force needs to be used to maintain the position of “leadership”.

        I suppose another sociological/anthropological question is the circumstances in which we allow leaders to run away with power and to use force against us.

        It has long been agreed in the democratic English speaking world that the essence of good government is replacing leaders in an orderly way.  I wish we could see the same as the standard in business organizations.  The use of force against employees is a sign that something has gone wrong.  Alarm bells should go off.  And HR should be on the scene in a flash trying to understand why the leader believes so little in his or her people that s/he feels the need to bully them.

        Young managers often don’t trust their subordinates.  A skill that is rarely talked about is the skill of believing in one’s people and seeing their strengths.

        I would love to collaborate with someone on this.   It could make a great 2.0 app.

        2 Comments

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