Leadership Blog

Leaders, Don't Tread on Dreams

In an article by Dan Goleman last year he begged the question, “If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in ten years?”

Such a question opens us up to fresh possibilities, to reflect on what matters most to us, and even what deep values might guide us through life. Taking this approach offers leaders and approach to coaching their teams to get better results.

Contrast that mind-opening query with a conversation about what’s wrong with you, and what you need to do to fix yourself.  That line of thinking shuts us down, puts us on the defensive, and narrows our possibilities to improve or even rescue operations. Leaders should keep this in mind, particularly during performance reviews.

We were astounded to learn that at a recent Board recruitment interview to chose a Chair, the candidate, a senior manager, was asked, “Give me an example of a strategy you have been involved in that has failed?”.  The follow up question was, “ In your career to date, as a leader, can you tell us when you have failed to lead well?”.

Goleman’s question about your perfect life in ten years comes from Richard Boyatzis another champion of emotional intelligence.  His recent research on the best approach to coaching has used brain imaging to analyse how coaching affects the brain differently when you focus on opportunities and dreams instead of failings.  These findings have great implications for how to best help someone improve.

Boyatzis is quoted as saying, “Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities.  But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down.”

Working with colleagues at Cleveland Clinic, Boyatzis put people through a positive, dreams-first interview or a negative, problems-focused one while their brains were scanned.  The positive interview elicited activity in reward circuitry and areas for good memories and upbeat feelings – a brain signature of the hopefulness we feel when embracing an inspiring vision.

In contrast, the negative interview activated brain circuitry for anxiety, the same areas that activate when we feel sad and worried. In the latter state, the anxiety and defensiveness elicited make it more difficult to focus on the possibilities for improvement.

Of course a manager needs to help people face what’s not working.  As Boyatzis put it, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive.  You need both, but in the right ratio.”

Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, finds that positive feelings ‘enlarge the aperture of our attention’ to embrace a wider range of possibility and to motivate us to work toward a better future.  She finds that people who do well in their private and work lives alike generally have a higher ratio of positive states to negative ones during their day.

Being in the positive mood range activates brain circuits that remind us of how good we will feel when we reach a goal, according to research by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. That’s the circuit that keeps us working away at the small steps we need to take toward a larger goal – whether finishing a major project or a change in our own behaviour.

This brain circuitry — vital for working toward our goals — runs on dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, along with endogenous opioids like endorphins, the “runner’s high” neurotransmitters.  This chemical brew fuels drive and tags it with satisfying dollops of pleasure.  That may be why maintaining a positive view pays off for performance, as Frederickson’s research has found: it energises us, lets us focus better, be more flexible in our thinking, and connect effectively with the people around us.

Managers and coaches can keep this in mind.  Boyatzis makes the case that understanding a person’s dreams can open a conversation about what it would take to fulfill those hopes.  And that can lead to concrete learning goals.  Often those goals are improving capacities like conscientiousness, listening, collaboration and the like – which can yield better performance.

Boyatzis tells of an executive MBA student, a manager who wanted to build better work relationships.  The manager had an engineering background; when it came to getting a task done, “all he saw was the task,” says Boyatzis, “not the people he worked with to get it done.”

His learning curve involved tuning in to how other people felt.  For a low-risk chance to practice this he took on coaching his son’s soccer team – and making the effort to notice how team members felt as he coached them.  That became a habit he took back to work.

By starting with the positive goal he wanted to achieve – richer work relationships – rather than framing it as a personal flaw he wanted to overcome, he made achieving his goal that much easier.

Goleman’s bottom line in all this is: don’t focus only on weaknesses, but on hopes and dreams.  It’s what our brains are wired to do.   As a leader you might well reflect on the last few lines of the WB Yeats poem, The Cloths of Heavan.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”


Let’s Lead With Different Thoughts

Every so often we come across examples of thought leadership, whether it is a whole new way of delivering things (e.g. Amazon) or a general and seemingly enduring concept like “the internet of things”.  Thought leadership is a powerful and influential attribute that can change economies and can change lives.  We like it at its best and most elusive, when it is counter intuitive.

The recently published report by Locality in partnership with consultancy house Vanguard provides a moment of challenge that could be groundbreaking thought leadership.  It is aimed at the public sector and it could apply to large private companies also.  Could be?  Well, depends on the response.

Under the influence of Professor John Sneddon, an expert in systems thinking, the report seeks to overturn some conventional thinking and a prevailing view that service efficiency can be driven by a combination of scale and standardisation.   Quality assurance and process people will be shaking in their boots.

From a public sector contracting position, there is very clear evidence of failure – look at what has happened to Serco and A4E in the UK.  The challenge is that a government and maybe also a large company, seeking to do better is on the wrong track if they consider economies of scale and process standardisation to be the solution. 

Sneddon’s influence presents a counter view.  Scale and standardisation are not the solution; they are the problem.

In regard to the public sector, the report states that far too many public service systems, especially in health and social care:

“Assess, rather than understand

Transact, rather than build relationships

Refer on, rather than take responsibility

Prescribe packages of activity, rather than take the time to understand what improves lives.”

The problem is that at a locality level (county, district, city, estate), where attitudes, circumstances and problems people face are each different, they are not resolved.  This doesn't just lead to needs not being met. It’s worse,  There is increased ‘failure demand’ as others have to increase their effort and try to cope with the failure to resolve needs.  This increases cost. 

This report sets out an alternative strategy based on four principles.  It promotes the idea of:

  • Local by default - don't impose central office solutions; free people to invent local solutions; what matters is what works
  • Help people to help themselves – reduce dependency on given solutions; free people to choose, mix and match the interventions they need in their local circumstances
  • Focus on purpose and not on outcome – outcomes are a consequence; what matters is effective intention and what we can measure and manage in terms of how we go about things
  • Manage value and not cost –it costs less in the long run to provide a solution that removes need and further demand rather than impose a seemingly low cost, ready-made solution.  Managing value drives out cost.

These four principles, articulated above, are likely to reduce demand rather than amplify it and leave customers satisfied rather than dissatisfied.

The essence of all this is to start with the customer or ‘service user’.  This is a familiar theme to us all.  The common rhetoric is ‘customer first’ or ‘customer focus’.  This breaks down when an organisation tries to treat all customers as having the same in needs and wants or treats them as a category and not as a diverse group of individuals.   Align this to a belief in regulatory pressure to pursue economies of scale and standardisation of service and you get a ‘one solution fits all’ response.  Efficiency yes, effectiveness no.

The report attacks large-scale contract tendering biases and highlights what is describes as the unintended consequences of this approach:

  • Increasing silos and disjointed services
  • Decreasing competition and diversity of supply
  • Increasing culture of fear
  • Decreasing innovation and cooperation
  • Eroding customer or client independence and choice.

Essentially the contention is that scale and standardisation are not working. They actually increase cost rather than reduce it because it leaves needs unmet and therefore leads to increasing demand in other services.

Here’s a plea for deregulation.  Let’s get off the track of a prescriptive approach to regulation/standardistion of services.  What the new approach asserts is

  • Regulation consumes more than it saves
  • Restricting choice of method and work design reduces innovation and experimentation, halting learning and improvement
  • Prescriptive solutions, inappropriately applied, have concealed costs that lock in ‘diseconomies of scale’.

In summary, the report suggests a simple solution: abandon a broken model and free up leaders to pursue local solutions that will work.  



Useful Tip to Bring Out the Best in Your Team

When teams form to take on tasks, they are seldom able to tap the full knowledge of every member, in large part because the most confident, outgoing people get the most airtime, even if they're not the most expert. Meanwhile, others with a very real contribution to make take a backseat and therefore have a limited impact.

But recent research has found that this dynamic can be changed through a brief and simple intervention.  Early in a task, team members should be encouraged to discuss the relevant knowledge each brings to the table.  Sounds obvious, but so rarely done.

In a series of lab experiments, groups that underwent this intervention outperformed other groups.  Academics Bryan Bonner and Alexander Bol recruited university students, placed them in three-person teams, and gave them estimation problems such as "What is the elevation of Kings Peak, Utah?" (Answer: 13,528 feet) and "How much did the Guinness record holder for the heaviest person of all time weigh?" (Answer: 1,400 pounds).  Teams discussed the problems until they reached a consensus.

They instructed the members of some teams to begin by coming up with two bits of information apiece that they thought could be useful. Examples included, "I hiked Kings Peak last summer, so I know how high it is" and "Record-holding statistics are usually greater than you'd expect, so bump up the heaviest-person-of-all-time estimate".  On some of the teams, people did this individually and then brought the results to the team; the rest compiled the information as a group.  Other teams - their control condition - were given no guidance.

The teams in the control condition tended to defer to whoever seemed the most confident and they had the worst performance.  The best performance came from teams that had discovered their members' knowledge as a group.  Those teams were more likely than the others to use their knowledge to devise strategies for solving the problems, perhaps because the process of collectively assembling knowledge increased members' understanding of the task and what it meant to be expert at it.

The process may sound simple, but it represents a significant departure.  On their own, teams rarely pause for this kind of reflection.  Team leaders should take advantage of this finding and encourage the group to assess members' knowledge and discuss its relevance to the task at hand.  That will change the criterion for power on the team from social influence to informational influence and help members tune out irrelevant factors - not just confidence and extroversion but also status, experience, tenure, assertiveness, gender, and race.


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Napoleon Bonaparte
“A leader is a dealer in hope.”

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