This type of change requires not only making the changes themselves, but also tending the process of change for those around them.
Being the most effective leader in a change scenario requires “adaptive leadership,” a capacity I think is critical for leaders to develop.
Put simply, adaptive leadership provides a framework for dealing with complex challenges. The core premises distinguish technical change, i.e., problem solving the way we’re used to, from adaptive change, which requires that we develop an approach we’re NOT accustomed to.
In my experience, most organizational leaders are incredibly skilled at getting in the way of engaging in conversations from an adaptive point of view. To put it simply, they’re pretty bad at it.
There are lots of reasons why, but a key barrier is identified in this excerpt:
“Adaptive challenges are typically grounded in the complexity of values, beliefs, and loyalties rather than technical complexity and stir up intense emotions rather than dispassionate analysis.” **
Leaders attain positions of leadership because they’re exquisite problem solvers. Objective evaluation is second nature for them. Give them something complex and juicy and watch them light up.
However, they’ll go to great lengths to tamp down or avoid emotion-filled conversations. And emotion is exactly what adaptive change stirs up.
Why the avoidance? Frankly, the emotional space is unfamiliar territory for most leaders. They feel ill-equipped to handle other people’s emotions, let alone their own, and they fear what will happen if a perfectly familiar business or organizational conversation starts to spin out of control.
Emotions and control are the operative words here. Leaders will never be able to detach their team members or their colleagues from having emotion, nor will they ever have full control of a situation. Yet a lot of effort goes into doing both. It’s critically important to become aware when this ingrained way of operating is taking over.
To excuse themselves from adapting, leaders typically revert to habitual story-lines that keep them in a technical problem solving mindset. Here are four of them – see if any of these sound familiar to you:
Story #1: Where’s Waldo? **
This story is a long, convoluted one with lots of reasons explaining why things are the way they are. What you don’t hear in the story are any culpable references to the leader telling the story. The storytellers are in the picture somewhere but you’re hard-pressed to find them. And doing a search for them can be quite a career limiting move.
Story #2: Community of Jerks **
In this story, the focus is squarely placed on everyone else other than the leaders. It’s all about Them. You’ll know you’re listening to this story when you hear repeated references to They.
Example: “If only they would _________
a) get a clue
b) shut up during meetings
c) see things our way
d) stop rocking the boat
e) all of the above
…then we could get on with it. “They are the problem. It’s not me!”
Story #3: End World Hunger **
This is the utterly-unrealistic-but-sounds-really-gallant story you’ve probably heard in meetings. No one expects anyone to actually pull something off as grand as what this leader is pitching, but the leader hopes to get Hero Points for looking like s/he is trying to do something big and noble, and then stand blameless when nothing lasting really happens.
Story #4: Breakfast of Champions **
There’s nothing like organizational hubris to stop conversations from hitting the hot spots that can actually generate adaptive analysis. It’s a Friday Night Lights mentality: “We’ve tackled gigantic issues in the past, we’ll do it again, and we’re awesome! Let’s go!”
(“And don’t blame us after we leave if nothing is truly solved. It’s the inept coach’s fault!“)
Do any of these strike a familiar chord? If they do, then your organization is probably being thwarted from a deeper, more systemic approach – and ultimately a more effective approach – to addressing complex challenges.
Recognizing the difference between technical and adaptive challenges is the first step. I hope this blog post helps.
A great next place to go for further reading is this Harvard Business Review article called The Work of Leadership by Heifetz and Laurie.
For a more in-depth understanding, I highly recommend the book: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky. Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA. 2009.
If even one of these story lines niggled at you, let me know. You’re probably ready to take the dive into understanding and addressing adaptive challenges and change.
** from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifitz, Grashow, Linsky, pp. 70-71.