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Tag: positive organizational scholarship

Where are those qualities of bravery and sharp compassion in this group?

There’s courage involved if you want
to become truth. There is a broken-

open place in a lover. Where are
those qualities of bravery and sharp

compassion in this group? What’s the
use of old and frozen thought? I want

a howling hurt. This is not a treasury
where gold is stored; this is for copper.

We alchemists look for talent that
can heat up and change. Lukewarm

won’t do. Halfhearted holding back,
well-enough getting by? Not here.


If anyone knows where this was published, could you let me know so I can add proper links here?
Many thanks.

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Oh! The roots of postive organizational scholarship in Henry Thoreau and American transcendentalism

Sept2010 by anjanettew via FlickrWalden Pond .   .   .

I had to rummage around on Wikipedia to disentangle my memory traces.  Walden Pond is the home of Henry Thoreau, the American poet.   On Golden Pond is a Fonda movie.

Henry Thoreau .   .  .

I am sure that all well brought up Americans have read Thoreau in the original. The rest of us come to him by the way of quotations.

Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows .  .  .

Henry Thoreau was an “transcendentalist”, which Wikipedia informs me was a New England movement in reaction to the intellectualism of Harvard and the utilitarian church.  To my naïve ears, this sounds like the basic thrust of the French Revolution that rejected the supremacy of priests and their dictates,.  Once we have rejected the priests as the authority in all things, we needed a way to think about secular authority         and social sciences and psychology arose as formalized ways of describing how we each discover our own truth (Remember the Pope anyone?  Not surprisingly, he is not enthused by this venture.)

Transcendentalism underpins much of contemporary positive organizational scholarship

This is an important read.  We see here the essence of dominant aspects of American culture and at least part of the foundations of positive psychology.

Ralph Emerson, I believe, was one of the early proponents.

“So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.

It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth?

And of the affections, — What is good?

By yielding itself passive to the educated Will. .  .

Build, therefore, your own world.

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.”

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

We bring about the world by what we attend to and value.  The world blossoms under the attention of what we value and love.  Whatever situation we are in (like it or not), we move in the direction of the questions we ask and so does it.

This is more appreciative inquiry (Case Western) than positive psychology (Pennsylvania).

It is the start point and as you read the now not so young Thoreau describing his life at Walden Pond, you hear the same complaints that we have about life today.  You hear the echoes of Joseph Campbell who followed a similar experiment with life. You hear British poet David Whyte who reconciled his life a marine biologist and NGO worker with is poetry.  You hear Gen Y Tim Ferris and The Four Hour Work Week.

I am enjoying this!

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Management theory is reconsidering is philosophical rots

Offer your problems to God, and they may open opportunities that you never imagined.

I am not religious, and if they haven’t clicked away already, my friends who are ‘evangelical atheists’ will think I’ve taken leave of my senses

Management theory is reconsidering its philosophical rots

[Yes, I did mean roots but the typo is apt.]

I heard the idea of presenting one’s problems to God from a Rabbi on Radio 4 today and it is an idea that has been forgotten by management theorists for a long, long time.  It is being actively and vigorously revived though, and if you want to be involved in modern management education, “opening yourself to the imagination of the universe” is an idea that you have to get you head around.

Old school management sucked the life juices out of us

“Old school” management is goal-oriented, and fundamentally arrogant and negative.  It goes like this. “I define the goal and until you have completed it, you are not up to scratch.”

We might even say that old school management is evil. It is even evil even when we are setting our goals for ourselves and not others.  It’s  arrogant to believe that we know what is right, not only for today, but for tomorrow whose shape we barely know.  It is very arrogant to believe that we know and the other does not.  It is evil to undermine the worth of other people and to daily put ourselves and others in situations where we are not up to scratch.

But how do we open ourselves to the imagination of the universe?

For all my exploration of modern management theory, I am still a psychologist and I want to know “what am I going to DO?

“offering a problem to God”, as I understand it, does not mean letting go.  It means beginning where we are, with our sense that the present does not meet our sense of what is right and wrong.   We begin by accepting our negative evaluation, our arrogant assertion that on this matter we believe we are right,  and our overbearing willingness to judge others.  We accept that this is ground we stand on at this moment.  This is our reality at the minut.

Then, we put this evaluation on the table, probably privately, it is offensive after all.  And at last,  we listen to what the universe has to say.    What does the universe have to say about this problem?

We’ve raised the flag.  We’ve said we will hear.   Now we listen!

But are we predisposed to listen?

The difficulty is though, that in this mood, when we feel the world is wrong, and we are right and that we are allowed to tell others they are wrong, in this mood, listening to anyone is far from our minds.

Positive psychology, an overlapping school of positive organizational scholarship, kicks in now and has a lot to say on how to reach a point that we can listen and hear.

We begin by reminding ourselves that it is quite natural, housed in a human body, to feel alarmed when we notice something is wrong.   Our biology is programmed that way.  It is natural .  .  .  well .  .  . to exaggerate.  When times are rough, and we reel from trauma to trauma, or just from hassle to hassle, it is not long before we begin to shut down and focus solely on what threatens us, or simply annoys us.

Positive psychologists help us stay out of this zone of despair, cynicism and negativity.  We look to them to keep us in that positive space where we can notice that something is wrong (or a least not to our taste) and listen to the universe.  It is a tough balancing act.

Positive psychologists are not our only resource, though. Most world religions have rituals to manage this emotional housekeeping.   Balancing our ‘alarm systems’ and listening to others is such an important skill that all cultures have ways of explaining the challenge.    What is saying a brief prayer before a meal but a momentary regaining of balance where we take stock in an appreciative not panicky way?

In our secular world, we explain every thing more wordily but we are not necessarily wrong.  Just ploddy.   Two other very important factors in maintaining ’emotional tone’ are exercise and friends.

The contribution of positive psychologists

Positive psychologists advocate a simple ritual of a gratitude diary.  A few brief notes at the end of each day makes the difference between believing that we have to solve every problem ourselves and “hearing” what the universe has to offer.

Offer your problems to the universe and allow yourself to be delighted by opportunities you never imagined.

And to my evangelical atheist friends, if you are such an objective scientist, try it before you knock it.

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Where is the bottle neck in your career? Worship that!

Do you remember the Theory of Constraints?

A system is only as good as its slowest part!

And because slow sections are a fact of life, we rally around the slow section part, not the fastest part, or the most talented!

Basically, the slowly part must never be left with nothing to do!

A faster section needs to be standing by to deliver their work just as they need it.  No sooner – there is no point as they cannot do it.  And no later because their downtime will hold everyone back.

We also need a signal to tell us that slow section is nearly finished what they are doing, and the signal should arrive just in time for the buffer to release the next lot of work.  Again there is no point in sending it sooner because they cannot do it and while work sits around, it costs us money.

So we won’t start our piece until we are reasonably confident that the slow section can receive it!  Remembering that they will sometimes take longer and sometimes take a shorter time, we must be ready to change our plans accordingly.

There are a lot of practical applications for the Theory of Constraints

  • Put the slowest child in the front of the line not at the back.  Everyone has to walk behind lest they leave the child behind completely!
  • Add resources to the slowest part of work until they are the slowest part no more!  And then work with the new slowest part.
  • Don’t bother to take on more work than the slowest part can do.  It cannot be completed no matter how hard others work.
  • And of course never be the slowest unit in a team because you will have to work non-stop while others watch you!

The Theory of Constraints and your Career

Tell me, where are the critical links in your career?  Where is the point through which everything else flows at least once?

Where is the point which holds everything else up?

Now focus on that point, and get it as efficient as you can.  Don’t hurry it and create a long “to do” list.  It does not help the work speed up.

Just find a way to make it more efficient and effective.

Rinse and repeat.

P.S.  Theory of Constraints is not inconsistent with a strengths based approach to psychology.  When we focus on what the slowest part does well and do more of it, the system runs better.  When we treat the slowest part as a nuisance and start harassing it with a back load of work – do this, do that! – then it will just get slower and the system slows down more.  Look at the strengths of the slowest part and we will all get along a lot quicker.   Quick people?  Wait.  We can’t go faster than our slowest teammate but we can have what they need at their finger tips just when they need it!

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What can I COUNT ON you to do?

What can I count on?

Yes,”count on”, “depend upon”, “know that you will do as surely as the sun rises and sets”.  And you ask the same question of me.  What am I 100% committed to doing for you?  That is the foundation of our relationship.

Our relationship may be more. It will include

  • What do we do together?
  • What do we celebrate together?
  • How important is our relationship compared to other relationships?  What priority does it have?
  • How relevant is our relationship to coping with the trials and tribulations and  developing the opportunities already present?

Most people only look at the priority of a relationship.  They want total loyalty – which is unrealistic.  Blood is thicker than water, after all.  What counts is the essence.

What, what is it that I can count on you to do?

Disciplines study trust from different angles

  • Economists use game theory to look at our interests and the constraints that lead us to be quite predictable.
  • Politicians look at our interests and the alliances we make with others to pursue them.
  • Poets urge us to put “ourselves inside the river” – to pay attention to the story unfolding around us
  • Clinical psychologists measure our self-efficacy – how do we rate our competence to achieve something that seems hard
  • Educational psychologists have championed collective efficacy – how do we rate the competence of our colleagues?
  • Positive management scholars ask “what do we do well” and “what will we do more of”?
  • Toyota management specialists tell us to take our ideas and run a formal experiment – find out what matters and respect it.

Do we understand the nature of our commitment to each other?

Collective efficacy, the tool used by educational psychologists, illustrates well where I am going.  Collective efficacy  is measured by the specific question: “how good is X at his or her job?”  Questionnaires and simple ratings are neat and tidy.  Cool stuff – we get a number and the higher the number, the better the school.  Important to know and understand.

It’s also important to put our finger on the nub.  Can we describe our relationships in simple, accurate and concrete language?

  • What is it that we are totally committed to do for the people around us?  In what way are we utterly dependable to others?
  • In what way are they utterly dependable to us?
  • In what way is this, our reciprocated commitment, important to our lives?
  • And are we talking about “what is” rather than “what isn’t”?  Are we talking about the relationship as it is, rather than as we want it to be?

Do we understand the network of commitments that are important to the good life?

I’ve always felt that there are 10 or so people in my life whom I need to trust entirely.  They include my banker, my mechanic, my butcher and my baker.   When 3 or 4 are unreliable, my life becomes miserable indeed.

I am magnificently happy though when I am surrounded by people who share a mutual commitment to me.  It may be a small commitment. It may be a relatively small circle.

But that sense that we are competent, dependable and principled is very important.

(As opposed to fickle, corrupt and inept – a phrase I heard on BBC.)

Our lives are as big and as magnificent as our sense that people around us are good people.

Celebrating that goodness will boost your sense of well-being.

  • It’s worth putting our finger on the small contribution each person makes to our lives.
  • It’s worth putting a name to its essential essence – not to what we want to change – but to what will never change because it is the essence of the person and what they will do for us.
  • It’s worth hearing the words of others as they see what about us is predictable and counted upon (because they’ve observed our essence and don’t try to change us).

When we have mapped our network, or social graph, of commitments, when we begin with what is rock solid, how do we feel?  How much energy have we liberated?

I’d be interested to know how you approach these questions.  Have a great weekend.

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Wanna be a positive manager of the 21st century? Lose the idea of a gap.

If you are interested in contemporary management or what is called positive management, or positive psychology, or positive organizational scholarship, and if you have had any training at all in “old school” management, there is an important habit of thought that you will have to give up.

Gap or deficit models have had their day

Almost all ‘old school’ management, and ‘old school’ psychology, works on a ‘gap model’.

Take “training” for example.  A manager decides someone isn’t doing what they should.  The manager asks whether they have done the task before or not.  If not, they are sent off for training.

The idea is that training will help the employee bridge the gap – between where they are know and where they should be.

Obvious, hey?

Well, we are going to kick that idea into touch.  Gap models and deficit models have been trashed.

What is the alternative to gap or deficit thinking?

But how can we define what to do if we can’t say where there is a gap?

Let’s take the greatest change champion of our time: Barack Obama.  How does Barack Obama propose change without saying there is a gap?

In January 2008, quite early on in the campaign, Barack Obama gave what I think of as his deficit speech.  It uses the word ‘deficit’ a lot.

Isn’t that a gap?  No, not really.  Because Obama talks about our deficit.  Not someone elses.  He talks about what we will do. Not what other people are going to do. And he talks about processes that we do and do well and will do more of.

The guiding rule in positive organizational scholarship is to talk about “the good and the true, the better and the possible” and DO MORE OF IT.

If you are new to positive management, begin with this speech

If you are new to positive management and still trying to get your head around thinking about change and forward movement without defining a gap, begin with this speech. It is a good example of contemporary positive thought.

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Positive psychology in Barack Obama’s words

US Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Ham...
Image via Wikipedia

“As an African-American, I will never forget that I would not be here today without the steady pursuit of a more perfect union in my country. That guides my belief that, no matter how dark the day may seem, transformative change can be forged by those who choose the side of justice.

And I pledge that America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights—for the student who seeks to learn; the voter who demands to be heard; the innocent who longs to be free; and the oppressed who yearns to be equal.”

Barack Obama addressing the United Nations Wednesday 23 September 2009

“for the student who seeks to learn; the voter who demands to be heard; the innocent who longs to be free; and the oppressed who yearns to be equal.”

The mission and values of psychologists

In these words, Barack Obama has summed up the mission and purpose of psychologists all over the world most eloquently.

These goals are not just our goals.  They are the mission and purpose of other people too. After all, Obama is a lawyer, a college professor and a politician.

But if in what we do, we do not pursue these goals, then we do nothing at all.

The heart of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship

Barack Obama has said what positive psychologists and positive organizational scholars struggle to say simply.

It is the student who seeks to learn (not the teacher who intends to teach).

It is the voter who demands to be heard (not the politician who intends to tell).

It is the innocent who longs to be free (not the hypocritical who intends to justify).

It is the oppressed who yearns to be equal (not the the powerful who intends to explain).

It matters so much whose perspective we take.

It matters so much who is the subject of the sentence.

It matters so much whose intent we seek to buttress.

It matters so much that we choose the side of justice.

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5 agreed points about happy prosperous work in the new economy

Mavens of work

FOUR loose communities of internet pundits are watching changes in work with great interest –

1 Professors and academics

2 Management consultants who specialize in organizational design

3 Social media gurus who explain developments

4 Marketers and purveyors of social media services who hope to stimulate demand

A FIFTH group, poets, might have a look from time to time but they probably find our prose dull.

What are we all looking for?

  • We know that the world economy is on a cusp. The industries of the 20th century have reached a point of diminishing returns. And we are definitely moving toward a future of new industries underpinned by advances in biotechnology and other sciences.
  • At the same time, we are communicating across countries and industries at the cracking pace made possible by the internet. Work has become quite different. And so has the leadership of organizations.

What are we pretty certain about?

I am yet to get my head around exactly which industries will boom. It is also not clear which activities will need formal organizations and which we will pursue as-and-when using social media tools like Facebook.

What is clear are the psychological “rules” of our new age.

The 5 points of appreciative inquiry originally described by David Cooperrider of Case Western seem to be repeated over and over again in different words with different examples.

As a case in point, a Thai blog quoted an Education Professor at Harvard who identified 5 competencies for the modern age.

What are the core competencies needed in this century? Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Helen Haste has identified five that we should begin teaching our students. We business managers should also consider how to bring these skills to our companies and careers.

Managing Ambiguity. “Managing ambiguity is that tension between rushing to the clear, the concrete, and managing this ambiguous fuzzy area in the middle. And managing ambiguity is something we have to teach. Because we have to counter the story of a single linear solution.”

Agency and Responsibility. “We have to be able to take responsibility and know what that means. Being an effective agent means being able to approach one’s environment, social or physical, with a confidence that one actually will be able to deal with it.”

Finding and Sustaining Community. “Managing community is partly about that multitasking of connecting and interacting. It’s also, of course, about maintaining community, about maintaining links with people, making sure you do remember your best friend’s birthday, that you don’t forget that your grandmother is by herself this weekend, and of course recognizing also that one is part of a larger community, not just one’s own private little world.”

Managing Emotion. “Really it’s about getting away from the idea that emotion and reason are separate… Teaching young people to manage reason and emotion and not to flip to one or the other is an important part of our education process.”

Managing Technological Change. “When we have a new tool, we first use it for what we are already doing, just doing it a bit better. But gradually, the new tool changes the way we do things. It changes our social practices.”

To make my point, how do these well phrased principles relate to the principles of appreciative inquiry?

The positive principle. Instead of assuming we now the solution and finding a plan to fit, begin with where you are now. Take the first step and see what you learn. (Managing Technological Change.) This is also know as rapid prototyping or Ready Fire Aim.

The social constructionist principle. There is no one view of the world which accounts for all our realities. We need to listen to all our points of view and look for the common linkages between us. These are ever changing as our experiences of the world change. (Finding and sustaining community.) Diversity and belonging are key to modern enterprises. If we neglect either, we rip the guts out of our organizations.

The anticipatory principle. We are doers by nature and like nothing better than chasing after a goal. To achieve a goal, we need to understand how things work, and pay attention to the results we achieve. Feedback, though, comes back to us from all angles and to disentangle what we are hearing, we have to learn about the world and our place in it. Our love of Agency and Responsibility is never clearer than in computer games were we pursue quests and test out our competence with others in competition with “forces of nature” and competing interests. We are being chided to take responsibility. We do so naturally. The trick is to figure out what is under our control.

The simultaneity principle. The world exists only in so far as we pay attention to it. This is not an abstract philosophical point. It is also a point in physics. It doesn’t mean we can ignore what we choose or make things up. It means things change their meaning and their essence when we notice them. And we change when we notice ourselves. David Cooperrider put the principle like this. We move in the direction of the questions we ask. To put this concretely, I don’t go to London. When I start asking where is London, I start moving toward London. If I ask the question a different way, how do I drive to London, I will probably do something different, such as not use the train. (Managing Ambiguity).

The poetic principle. The poetic principle is not poetic! But “the good, the true, the better and the possible” is. Most of us had poetic language beaten out of us at school and college Dry, wooden language became a mark legitimacy and is popular with the powerful because it conceals their motives. When we are firmly in charge, we reject the emotions and motivations of our audiences so we don’t have to acknowledge their interests. By using dry language, we can claim that our interests are truths – so convenient! Poetic language engages the interests of others. It is emotional. It is not deliberately emotional. It is explicitly emotion. And we use emotional language to find the common basis of our separate and sometimes conflicting interests. To say emotional language is honest negotiation sounds unpoetic – but that is what it is. Many people in power, including teachers, are disconcerted by the demands of Gen Y to approach issues from their point of view. How can this be organized, they cry? Well I have taught a 850 person class of Gen Y. They do evaluate every lecture with the question : what does this material do for me, right here, right now? They behave like 850 demanding CEO’s. Once we’ve got over our surprise, it works. Stand and deliver! We look at the emotion – their point of view – and the range of their points of view – and deliver the material accordingly. They learn more. They learn the substance. They learn what to do with the content we are teaching. They learn about the range of perspectives in the class. They apply the material. Isn’t that what we are asking for – engagement? To engage we have to come from their point of view – not ours which we concealed in pompous language.

We seem to be on a plateau of understanding

It strikes me that professors, consultants, gurus, geeks and poets have come up different sides of a hill and found themselves on flat piece of ground. We seem to concur, for now, on the essential ingredients of “new work”.

I’m sure these principles will be refined in due course. And it is good for each of us to rephrase them in our own words using our own examples. It helps us understand their nuances and limitations.

They are clear enough for now, and they appear in sufficient sources, though, to teach.

They are also clear enough to try out in practical projects.

The next goal

From now onwards, I am only going to scan theoretical pieces to see if they are saying anything new.

Otherwise, I am looking for examples of collective action and how the principles worked in practice.

I think I am interested in active experimentationhow we learn about these principles, deliberately or accidently.

If you have an example, do let me know.

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5 pretty petals of future work

I can see clearly now

Today, I visited Wirerarchy, Jon Husband’s blog. I was delighted to find the 5 principles of future work in plain language.

I do encourage you to go over and read his version.

To make sure I fully understood what Jon was saying, I rewrote his five points in my own words and compared them to other writings on the future of work.

Yes, Jon’s principles almost perfectly match the work on positive organizational scholarship, poetry and work, Hero’s Journey and positive organizational design.   Jon uses much more accessible language though.

Here is my version. I’ll add links to other versions below. And then I’ll walk the talk and tell you how I used the principles in the most unlikeliest of circumstances!

1 Changing focus

The future of work is not about institutions and organizations.

The future of work is about you and me.

2 Listening to the people who do the work

We don’t want to talk about abstract theories any more.

We want to hear the stories of people. Directly. With no translation.

3 Valuing what we can do for ourselves

We don’t want organizations and institutions to decide things for us.

We ‘ll support changes that allow us to do things for ourselves.

4 Representing ourselves

We won’t listen to so-called experts who secretly represent other people.

We’ll listen to people we know or who our friends recommend.

5 Being active and positive

We aren’t interested in being told to wait.

We will begin with what we do well. Right here. Right now.

How would you phrase these rules-of-thumb?

I would love to hear what you think of these rules-of-thumb and the way I have phrased them.

Links to my previous posts and slideshare

All phrased a lot more esoterically –

Previous posts on future work

The essence of a happy life is a point of view

5 point comparison of the Hero’s Journey, Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology

5 poetic steps for exiting a Catch 22

Lighten your personal burden for navigating 2009

Be still: Kafka and Joseph Campbell

Slideshare on future work

Positive organizational design

Positive organizational scholarship

So how will we get things done in this enchanting, new world?

For three years, I taught Management to a very large class of 800 to 900 students in a lecture theatre with 400 seats. You may remember attending lectures in one of these oversized rooms yourself. Hordes of students come in and sit in rows and struggle to stay awake as the lecturer drones on.

Of course, no lecturer wakes up in the morning intent on being deadly dull. But they do feel constrained. After all, how much can you do with this format and the size of the class?

Well, a surprising amount – if you follow the principles above.

The world through the eyes of the individual

I was teaching Management and Organizations. Students simply aren’t interested in perspective of the organization. But if you can think of how they view the organization from the vantage point of their part-time jobs and where their careers are going, then you have their attention.

Give me the whole story at once – circumstances, goal, steps, feedback loops, quirks and fancies

Students aren’t interested in the rules of organizing. No matter how elegant these rules are or how much work we put into thinking them up and trying them out!. They do like case studies, though, where they could follow a story. Then their active intellects take over. They imagine themselves playing a similar role in similar circumstances and start asking probing questions.

Don’t leave me out of the story – let me try out parts of it

Students don’t like being passive. Taking notes is better than sitting still. Solving puzzles is even better. I used questionnaires a lot in which they could see illustrations of concepts and relate them to themselves. Or I used two sets of power point slides – theirs had blank spaces and mine had the answers. In this way, they could anticipate (not just fill in) what I was going to say.

The way I relate to other people is part of the story – I’ll do this with others

Learning is social and students are influenced more by their peers than by us. They like to see and hear what other students think. There is a surprising amount of feedback from the noise and murmuring in a lecture room which is why so many students come to class in the first place! We also took polls often with a show of hands. It is active in an minor way. More importantly, students could see how much opinions varied. Developing a keen acumen of how much we vary in our preferences will be important to them as organizational leaders and influential citizens.

Harvard has a video of 2009 Reith lecturer, Michael Sandel, using the Socratic method with 800 students in one lecture theatre. Our students would have liked that – as long as we were able to be as courteous as Professor Sandel. Students really don’t like being put in the wrong in front of their friends, particularly in such a large room. (Who does?)

There is no journey unless I can take the first step

The jobs my students imagined after graduation were, to my surprise, not particularly ambitious. Though I didn’t fully approve at the time, now I think they had a well developed sense of starting with the ‘ground beneath their feet’ and growing from there.

These students particularly liked techniques that helped them do their jobs better, right now, or helped them put in words something that had puzzled them for some time.

Am I exaggerating the good points and dismissing the weak points?

You might be thinking that this was a University – we set the curriculum and the exams and the students did not have much control.

It is true that we began each year with a ‘classical’ textbook. But we would take topics that students had responded to well and use those as cornerstones to introduce new topics -or extend the conversation, so to speak. Thus as the year proceeded, a theme would emerge that was distinctive for that class.

One year, for example, the refrain became: “I will be me as I am. Not who you want me to be”.

You might recognize this line as coming from the film about Steve Biko, Cry Freedom.

Organizing for  “Me as I am.  Not who you want me to be.”

The challenge of management, as we put it to that class, is to design organizations where each of us can be “Me as I am. Not who you want me to be.”

What do you think?

Can you imagine organizing along these lines? Would you like to give me a case and see if I can rephrase it using Jon’s five principles?

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21st century feedback, training, management, HR

Feedback, poor much aligned feedback!

Feedback is one of the themes on the internet in the last 10 days and as a psychologist, I almost always weigh in.

The lay meaning of the term tends to be: Can I give you some feedback?

That’s a polite beginning, and as with all politeness, it obscures a depth of tension.  Think of “Won’t you come in?”  “Do come in!”  “Come in.” ” Come!”.   The more polite we are, the more tense we really feel.

So in this sense, “Can I give you feedback?” means, “Can I tell you how irritating you have been been?”

The best response is for us to put on our “active listening” hat, option 3, angry.

An angry person wants their anger to be acknowledged.  Accept their anger and restore their status.  It is not hard.

Then, if there is a practical issue too, deal with it.  But first deal with the social issue.  They feel “dissed”.  Restore their status by accepting their right to feel dissed and to tell you about it.

Professional meaning of feedback

The proper meaning of feedback, though, is “distance to a goal”.  This is the essence of motivation.  The mouse runs faster when it sees the cheese.  And because it is the essence of motivation, feedback is the most powerful tool in the psychology of high performance.

Once a university asked me to teach employee engagement to MBA’s in 3 hours.  Not possible.  Teaching the principles of feedback, practicing them till we are fluent, and using them in context, is a language that takes more than three hours to learn.   And it is too important to be tossed off as a topic.

So this is a long post.  But I hope you find it useful and towards the end, when I speculate on how we can improve the “feedback” we collect about training,  and how we can do better HR when we manage the feedback loops in an organization, I hope you jot down some ideas and give me feedback.

Three types of feedback


Feedback tells you whether you achieved your goal .  Feedback means it is informaton given after the event.

Feedback has all these elements and characteristics.

  • We have a goal and we need to know what it is.  In an organization, we all need to know what the goal is.
  • We have a way of measuring how far away we are from our goal.  How close are we to our cheese?
  • And we are told the distance to the cheese after we have stopped looking for it!  If the task is repetitive, like target practice, feedback after each trial is useful. Top class medical transcribers raise their performance another 20% if you tell them each day how many words they typed!
  • But if I tell you after a year, the information is worthless.  So why do give it?
  • Sorry to be dismissive, but if your boss is giving your feedback after the event and maybe a year later, he or she is not exactly on top of things.  Think big banks running the 6th richest country in the world onto the rocks of bankruptcy.  Giving feedback at the wrong point of the system is disastrous.  Think seriously about getting a better boss.
  • And in HR, it is our job to monitor how feedback is used and to design it into jobs properly.

So this is feedback.  It is useful when we have a repetitive task but it must be delivered before we begin the next trial.  No wait, let me be more precise, before we start preparing for the next trial.


Feedforward tells us about our goal and, importantly, the context of the goal.  Feedforward is provided before an event.

  • The best example of feedforward comes from the military.
  • SMEAC – Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, Communication
  • The boss is required to lay out the team’s operation on one piece of paper giving
    • the goal for the organization level above him or her (situation)
    • his or her goal – the group mission in one sentence (mission)
    • the goals for each member of the team in one sentence each (execution)
    • any non-standard resources (administration)
    • the points at which we must communicate (feedback which becomes feedforward to someone else).
  • So we need information at three levels of the organization.  We need to know who is doing what around us. We need to know how we will coordinate.
  • Sadly, I’ve only seen this done in the best organizations.  When I offered assessment centres to these organizations, we included delegation tasks in our assessment centres because they quickly reveal whether a manager understands the organization.  And organization, not control, is what managers are responsible for.

Feedfoward is provided before work begins.  It is taught carefully in the military and we can learn a lot from them.  In my experience, when something goes wrong, almost always I can track the problem back to information that is missing from the description about the situation.  We didn’t brief people properly about the context.

Continuous Feedback

Continuous feedback, which oddly does not have a specific name, is the third type and is the most important for high performance.  This is feedback that comes from the task itself.  It is fairly immediate.

  • You’ll have noticed that in the SMEAC system, we delegate a goal with one sentence only.  I ask you, if someone is fully trained, why do they need more than that?
  • A trained person will get on with the task and is obtaining information from the work as it progresses.  A chef works on sight, smell, touch.  The feedback is inherent in the task.
  • We experience flow when the feedback is built into a task.  We experience flow when time vanishes because we are so engaged.  We are inside the task.  We enjoy doing skilled work in a skilled way and if we want engaged, happy employees, or motivated, happy students, this is what we have to get right.  They must have tasks where the feedback comes to them from the task itself.
  • Bad jobs remove feedback.  I refer to bosses who “steal feedback”. They intercept information and stop it going back to the person who does the job.  They cause accidents.   “Stealing feedback” is like making someone drive blindfolded and directing operations from the back seat.  It is micro-management.
  • The military are aware of this problem and carefully judge communication loads. Lieutenants command three sections so the co-ordination task is sufficiently demanding and leaves no time to interfere with their sergeants.
  • If information goes to a manager rather than to the person doing the task, don’t be surprised if the task does not get done and the whole team runs into trouble.  The manager is attending to information that should be going elsewhere and they are not attending to their own role which is acting as the coordination point between 5-10 people and between that group and the organization at large.
  • Sort out this feature of task and organizational design, and your productivity leaps forward.  Depending on the your baseline, you may get gains of 10% or 20%.  I’ve seen gains of 100%, 200% and in one remarkable case, 1200% with no capital outlay.  Just HR doing its job.
  • And best of all managers have time to manage – that is coordinate and attend to the environment.

Continuous feedback leads to high performance. And it creates the highly pleasurable sensation of flow.

Feedforward tells us what needs to be be done. It is the critical briefing about the context of a task before we begin it.

And feedback tells us what we did yesterday.

So if feedback is about yesterday, why is it used so extensively in business?

I think it is because people want to express anger and their anger is about status.  A boss is establishing status.

Sadly (IMHO), English-speaking countries have masculine cultures.  We spend a lot of time establishing the pecking order.  Not all cultures do this.  They don’t have to put other people down to feel good.

And because we spend a lot of the time engaged in one upmanship and oneupmanship is really impolite, we have to deny what we are doing and be “polite” on the surface.

Let me spell out what this means in practice.  In Commonwealth countries, officers and “men” don’t eat together.  Or didn’t.  Has this changed?  In European countries, they do.  This I understand (has it changed), makes joint military operations between the UK and our allies very difficult.  In less masculine countries, artificial status differences are unacceptable.   You lead by doing your job.

Interestly, this is the difference between Gen Y and the Baby Boomers.  Boomers who think they are liberated still subscribe to the pecking order culture.  Gen Y don’t.  16 year olds befriend 50 year olds happily on the basis of common interest.  They are less experienced in some respects and more skilled in others and expect to be incorporated on the basis of their contribution not their place in some kind of queue.

So what has this to do with feedback or the distorted way we use feedback?

Everything.  The industrial system, a la Taylor, works on a principle of Gap Management.  Not “Mind the Gap” of the London Underground which is a useful bit of feedforward.  But a gap that is presumed.  This is how it goes.

I am the boss. I define the way the world should be.  And I must make sure you live up to that idea.  First, I assume there is a gap and I look for it.  Second, I assume the gap is a bad thing so I suffer negative feelings.  Third, your performance in so far it differs from what I imagined disappoints me.  Fourth,  I am the boss, so my feelings of disappointment anger me.  See how it goes?  Now is the time someone says, “Can I give you feedback!”

An alternative to gap management, anger, and “feedback” at work?

There is an alternative and even the Americans “get it”!  For quite a while now.  It goes by the rubrics of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship.

People get distracted by the word “positive” assuming this to be advocating “politeness”.  We all know people who advocate vacuous pleasantness and optimism but who are mean and vicious underneath.  When we come at the world with a masculine, pecking order, mindset, positive seems all wrong.

So lets let’s put pecking orders aside and look at the alternative.

In many situations, if not most situations, defining a goal in advance is unrealistic.  Even it is possible, we will lose out a lot.  In the military, they say no plan survives meeting the enemy.  We always have to improvise on the day.  Under these conditions, you can see that gap management and feedback is counter-productive.

So why do we do plan?  The military say it is not the plan, but the planning.  We prime ourselves with relevant information so that we can process unfolding events as they happen.  But we allow alternative ideas to develop.

That does not mean chaos. It means the opposite.  And it does not mean a boss who has no idea what is happening.

It means a boss who is picking up communications, or feedback, from each of us, reconstructing the overall picture, and holding that up to us so we can see our collective position.

When we have an annual feedback review, this is what should be happening.

The boss, who is responsible for the annual cycle should be saying, “This is where we were a year ago. This is what our challenges have been.  This is where we are now.  This is where we are going.”

In a large organization, again, this is situated at the three levels.

  • Situation – which includes the actions of other departments around us.
  • The aggregate team level – where we came from and where we are going.
  • The members of the team and the team structure – who was with us at the beginning, the role they were playing, how we morphed to who is with us now, and the general role each person is playing now.

How different this is from the rituals of anger and one upmanship that are played out in most of the organizations we know.

21st century management is  about “eating with the men” and feedback is about showing how you have improved the organization.  Your team wants to hear.  Your team wants to applaud.

Feedback in Training

I started writing this post because Jackie Cameron (@jayseetoo) was talking about feedback in training.  This is how I think we depart from our tradition of gap management in training.   Let me know what you think and we can develop these ideas together.

My understanding of the training situation

In a training situation, a person comes into the room with a goal.  But by definition, they do not know all the goals they could have.  If they did, the training would not be useful to them.

They also come into a group situation (unless you see training as 30 separate bodies sitting passively like physical objects).  And they interact with each other to mutual gain and quite often to mutual irritation.

Irritation and anger are part of life.  We need to stop pretending they aren’t.  Though they feel bad, they aren’t bad.  They are simply emotional signals that we feel we aren’t being heard.

With this description of training, what “feedback” do we need?

1  How did our goals change during the training course?

I want to know how our goals changed during the training session.  And that includes the goals of the trainers.  We aren’t doing gap management – one person doesn’t know everything!  Thus I ask, whose goals have changed, and how?

I see training as a timeout where we follow a process which culminates in the comparison of the goals we had when we began with the goals we have as we return to the world and our lives.

And it is possible that we end a training course annoyed and disappointed!  That’s OK.  We may have been deluded at the outset about the possibilities available to us.

My evaluation questions go like this:

  • Did taking this course help you define goals more clearly and help you get more out of life, or alternatively, avoid taking a wrong turn?
  • How much did you gain as a % of the fees we charged you?  Or, how much would you have spent if you had continued in the wrong direction?

2 Are we confident about our new goals?

I want to know that a person can act on their own and so I want each person to actively work on their own plans.

A person might come to the conclusion “bin this subject – it is not for me”.

They also might end the course by deciding to follow up another question.

Both are acceptable outcomes to me.  What I want to know is whether they have moved on in some way.

The end of a course is a time of  “adjourning”  too.   People are moving from group to individual action and they need to visualize and mentally rehearse using the material as an individual and without my support and the support of the group.

So I collect the goals expressed at the end of the course and analyse them in my post-course review and evaluate extent to which they are active and specific.

I also add this evaluation question:

  • How confident are you that you will complete this action?

Self-efficacy is not sufficient for completion but it is necessary for completion.

3 Were we in good company?

I also want my course to be a resource to a person as they go through life and it is here I get the most important feedback on what I could do to improve the course.

I ask these questions, or variations, thereof:

  • Are you proud that you took this course?
  • Do you believe that the people who were on this course with you will do what they say?

Collective efficacy boosts performance and if people are proud to be in the room, they will learn heaps more.

I add practical questions here too.

  • Have you met people, or renewed contact with people, whom you will contact after the course and find helpful in your work?

4  Did I believe I you?

And then I ask the humdinger of the question:

  • Do you think that I believed in you?

The Pygmalion effect has a dramatic impact on people’s self-efficacy.

And I might also ask an open question:

  • How did I express my belief in you?

5 Did I believe in this group?

And lastly, I’ll ask myself this extremely important question.

  • Did I believe in this group?

If they ring me up next week, would I be happy to take their call?

Am I happy to have them follow me on Twitter and would I find their tweets interesting?

Can they follow me on Facebook and do I trust them to respect me?

What did I learn from this group and when I gave the summation and showed who we were when we began and who we were at the end, what did I feel and why?

If my evaluation of my group is not positive, I simply shouldn’t be leading them.

That is the challenge to English-speaking corporates.  Why are the people in-charge allowed to be uninspired by their “followers”?  It is not good enough.

I’ve also learned to ask this question positively:  What happened today and “WHY DID IT GO SO WELL?”

HR and the urge to give feedback

Those of us in HR need to monitor these urges to “give feedback”.  What is the real issue that has flipped this group into a negative spiral?

Once we notice that a group is so annoyed with each other that they are “giving feedback”, we should do something.  This is my thought process.  Yours?

  • Is the job badly designed and is the boss interfering in the level below?  Or rather what are the goals above the boss, at the boss’ level, and the level below?
  • Has the group task been badly designed and are the communication points between team members miss-set?  Maybe we have been over-ambitious?
  • If one team member has tripped up, why?  Was their goal consistent with circumstances and resources?
  • Is it a matter of training and selection – did we trip up?  Did we set up one of our employees and their colleagues for a fall?

If you aren’t able to facilitate a return to an upward spiral by going through these qustions, I will eat my hat.  Try me out.  I far prefer to wear my hat so this is a serious offer.

But remember, you may have to accept a lot of anger at the outset, dressed up as “feedback”.

And if you can’t do that, it’s probably because you don’t believe in this team enough, and maybe you should get another person to take on the job!

21st century management

21st century work is not about one person defining the goal.  It is about all of us working out what is possible.

Managers play an important role in negotiating and facilitating our sense of what is possible and simultaneously defusing strong emotions when these threaten to set us all on a downward spiral.

A manager’s role is to hold up a mirror so we see our collective dream in sharper relief and heighten our confidence in each other.

It is beautiful when we see it happening.


And did this help you at all?  Do you have a reaction which would help me?  Are we in better place than we were before?

I am.  Writing helps organize thoughts.  This is a pretty rambling post incorporating culture, feedback and organization with management, HR, training and selection but it has helped me heaps.  Thanks and sorry about remaining typos and grammatical errors.   There is a lesson in this.  Don’t write long posts.  So thanks.  If you are reading this, you’ve stuck with me for a long while.

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