One of the most interesting facets of human interaction. i.e. leadership, is language. I’ll admit to being a recovering English teacher, and I’ve always loved to read—probably why I was wearing glasses by junior high. Words grab me. I’ve never met a terrific leader, at any level in an organization, who wasn’t a terrific listener.
Sometimes we have conversations in my sessions focused on stove pipes (departments that often know nothing about their organizational brothers and sisters). In California, they call the same phenomenon (with a wry smile) cylinders of excellence. And I long ago gave up trying to keep track of acronyms, especially since the same letters may stand for a very different thing between one office and the next. I simply play dumb, something I’ve been told I do well.
Then there are the (too) common buzzwords from the world of OD (for Organization Development, itself a godfather of buzzwords), like iterative prototyping, forward-thinking, value-added, ROI (return on investment), employee engagement, and so on.
Of them all, two especially raise my hackles, even when they’re used with good intent. They roll easily off the tongue and are catchy, and maybe we need to think about them a bit more. One is The Law of Unintended Consequences. Robert Merton was a brilliant guy, also responsible for role model and self-fulfilling prophecy, two beauties. He often called his insight The Law of Unanticipated Consequences, and I wish he’d popularized that instead. For leaders, I think impact counts more than intent. I’m not letting bad actors off the hook here, or bad intent disguised as beneficence (English teacher alert). But once an action is implemented, intention becomes pretty meaningless. Those of us who have tried to do something nice and have it backfire know that well. I prefer to steer my groups toward the idea of Unforeseen Consequences, since foresight is an important part of leadership and takes intent out of the equation.
When I’m working with a group trying to embrace and manage change, I work hard to keep their focus on preparation (being flexible, candid, and skeptical of their own expectations) over planning (thinking they can control the ripples of the stone they’re about to pitch into the pond that is their organization). The first habit needs the free flow of ideas to work, which means those with more apparent power need to back off, at least a bit. Then we can shift the focus to anticipating consequences, understanding that we cannot control all the ripples, and on foresight rather than on intent.
The term I work hardest to shave out of the OD lexicon is empowerment. I warned you I’m a recovering English teacher. And words don’t just reflect what we think, they shape how we think. Empower is a transitive verb—it takes an object. In other words, you do it to people. So who really has the power? Often enough, I see this term used either as a fancy substitute for delegate or as a way for a supervisor to avoid a conflict: “The team has been struggling with this issue, so I empowered them to deal with it.” Uh-huh.
I try to plant the idea of power-sharing. You share power with people. That generates a more collaborative relationship than doing something to people. With involves dialogue, a lateral conversation (talking and listening across apparent boundaries of power) rather than vertical (talking/listening within boundaries). That frame is very different, more inclusive, more likely to foster alignment. I encourage groups to plan meetings together, rotate roles and responsibilities, develop agendas based on feedback from everyone involved. This sounds cumbersome and unwieldy, but it’s not. The more we can enlist support by sharing power, the more power is available to solve problems and move toward solutions.
Margaret Wheatley suggested, “Power in organizations is the capacity generated by relationships.” Every organization has boundaries—parents and children, teachers and students, supervisors and employees, sales and marketing, and so on. When those boundaries prevent learning, collaboration, or feedback, we can turn our eyes toward power-sharing as a possibility for nurturing greater capacity through enlisted relationships.