# Metoo and Leadership

# Metoo

In the past weeks there has been a tidal wave of disclosure about people abusing their power. The # metoo movement has helped people, men and women alike, to come forward and share their experiences with the world. It’s a widespread problem in the political, cultural and business world. In short, everywhere there is power the risk of abuse exists.
Langer Research conducted a survey in the USA to assess the dimension of the problem. They concluded that 33 million American women feel harassed and 14 million have experiences of abuse. These figures are shocking. And before we say that this is about America and not about us, I think we should stop this reflexion. 95% of women report that nothing happened to stop that behaviour. And that’s because it’s also about power.

How Does Power Work?

Power is always unevenly distributed. If everybody would have the same power, it would not be an issue. John Rawls discussed in his “Theory of Justice” about the hypothetical situation that all “resources” are equally distributed and that people do not know about possible differences. He also argues that a difference or inequality is only acceptable as when it is beneficiary to those who have less.
We can apply this to the topic of power.

As power is unevenly distributed, it should only be used when those who have less power can benefit from it.

In the sexual harassment cases, this is clearly not the case. People with power uses it to impose their sexual drive upon others who find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. It’s difficult because this use of power functions through fear.
People who find themselves in such a situation feel that they cannot do anything against it, out of fear of losing something. The person in power controls access to many other things: access to resources, access to career opportunities, access to an income, access to violence … So people tend to choose between the benefit of going against the unacceptable behaviour and the cost of doing so.

No heroes

The benefits of resisting or exposing such behaviour are clear: dignity, self-esteem, protection of others, justice, … These are all long-term and high-level principles. The costs are usually direct and of a short-term nature: no job, damaged reputation, no income, becoming an outcast, violence. And that’s why many people do not come out. The cost is too high. They do not want to be a hero (as they know where most heroes end).
A very peculiar aspect of such a situation is that people tend to believe the ones in power more easily. People who claim justice are often blamed and shamed. Did they say no? Were they clear enough? Did they provoke the behaviour? What were they wearing? What were they doing there in the first place? Are they not exaggerating? Was it that bad? This adds to the feeling of loss.
In the end people who would like to expose an abuse of power, know where they are today: in a bad situation. But they do not know what their fate will be once they come out. So they decide to move on and do nothing. So this psychological mechanism helps people to stay in power and continue their behaviour. And people in power who abuse their power know that it works this way.

Power is needed (?)

Power is in itself not a bad thing. Leaders need it to survive, to progress, to open doors. It’s not the power itself that is a problem, it’s how people use it.
In Schindler’s list there is a scene which stuck with me. When the cruel camp director Amon got drunk, Schindler tried to implant another idea about power in his head. True power is about not using it. Of course you can argue on how Schindler phrases it – power is not killing when you have every justification to kill – but I think it’s true: not using power is powerful.

Power as Source for Leadership

Power is never a sustainable source of leadership. To keep power, you have to do everything to avoid others from developing their own power. If power is based on access to information, the one in power needs to withhold information from others. And, if competence is the source of power, the one with power needs to stop people from developing themselves. If fear is the basis of power, the powerful need to make sure that people are scared. None of these outcomes and levers are future-oriented or sustainable.
When leaders use power with the sole purpose of maintaining it, power becomes a threat to the well-being, the prosperity and the future of people. This kind of power abuse leads to all sorts of obnoxious behaviours. And the thing is that people in power feel they are entitled to these behaviours. They think it’s normal to do indecent proposals, to use the company’s or country’s assets for their own purposes. And they think it’s normal to eliminate competition on the power field.
Let’s not be naïve, people have always used power both for positive and negative purposes. There are a lot of power games going on in organizations. Sometimes the use of power is beneficial, very often it’s not. But we agree that when leaders use their power to (sexually) harass others, it is surely not acceptable.

Harassment destroys one’s identity. People feel dehumanized. Treated unfairly. Damaged.


And here comes leadership. When a leader knows or notices that someone in power abuses their power, they should step in. The first directive is to always protect the ones who have less power. In that way leaders can use their power to the benefit of someone in particular and to the benefit of the experience of many others. Abuse of power should always be stopped. Leaders who tolerate such behaviours lose their own credibility and make it difficult for people to continue working. Tolerating such behaviour destroys trust. It creates an unsafe environment.
But you might think that a leader will always do that. But leaders also work in a context. They are just as sensitive to power arguments as any other person. Maybe the abusing person has more power? Maybe the leader has power struggles and cannot handle yet another problem. Maybe the abusing person is an excellent professional with a track record? Maybe … As you see, these are all excuses. But these are around. And when leaders are in doubt to act, they should think of this: if there is one time a leader should intervene, it’s on that moment when someone is in trouble because of someone abusing power.

House of Cards

Leaders are as good as the worst behaviour they tolerate.

And of course there’s a lot of manipulation. We all know of cases where someone who does not perform well, uses the (legal) protection of the harassment complaint to save themselves. But then we should have faith in the outcome of the inquiry. This is what I propose as procedure when there is one case.

  1. Protect the weaker person.
  2. Freeze the situation. Make sure nothing can happen that aggravates the situation.
  3. Conduct a thorough inquiry, done by a neutral professional. Give everybody the chance to a fair chance to give their sides.
  4. Share the outcome of the inquiry with both parties
  5. Come to a conclusion and take action.

Of course, step 5 is the most difficult. As there are always two sides to a story, leaders must come to a conclusion. This is what has recently happened with the actor Kevin Spacey. After people came forward, Netflix has stopped all collaboration with him. Not an easy decision. The same has happened in Belgium with Bart De Pauw. Another example are the recent resignations from the British government. Organizations cannot afford to work with people who exhibit that kind of behaviour. And as it often happens, these public figures have less chances for a fair trial because the stakes are high. Of course these decisions are also and maybe even primarily about reputation.


But think of this. How many people in the world suffer every day because people abuse their power? And how many people have to suffer because their leaders do not wish to intervene in such cases and become accomplice to the situation. People deserve a leadership that is courageous enough to serve and protect. And that’s what power should be used for in the first place. Only then people will have a full trust in their leadership.
There will be always behaviour like this. It’s part of humanity. But fighting against it is a sign of civilisation and culture. So it’s not because we have predatory behaviour in our genes, that we need not deal with it.

Alternative for Leadership

The # metoo wave shows also that social technologies have the potential to become a source of power as counterweight for traditional sources of power. Like this they are an alternative to leadership. Collective action shows that personal power can be outweighed. But we know that these sources of power are very fragile, they don’t last too long. However, the # metoo hashtag has given many people the courage to step forward and do something about this situation. And somehow this is remarkable.
People who still use their power in inappropriate ways and leaders who tolerate or endorse this behaviour, should take this as a sign. It’s time to clean up and truly adhere to the often espoused values of trust, respect and fairness. If not, leadership and culture are like of a house of cards. They will blown away by one single example of bad behaviour followed by popular outcry. The discrepancy between words and actions is no longer acceptable.

Make sure there is no real reason for someone to use the # metoo hashtag.

And here’s the thing. If you only intervene after a # metoo action has occurred, you are too late. So, Reputation is the shadow of character. Work on the latter and you will not need to work on the former. And this is a plea for better leadership, as alternative to weak leadership.

Potential Needs a Push


Human Potential

What is human potential? We don’t know. You could say that potential is that what is possible. Or that what is not impossible. But with that not much has been said. We like to see potential as an innate quality. And like every quality, potential is limited. It’s hardly ever zero, meaning that all people have the potential to be someone, to create something, to relate to something.
Should we give a more concrete definition? Let’s try. Potential is the maximum level of functioning someone theoretically could reach based on their physical and mental qualities. In my definition, it’s a theoretical level of functioning.

A Push

Do you know people who were so promising but never got anywhere? We all do. They seem to have squandered their potential. And some do that out of personal choice, whilst others seem to have missed the opportunities needed to develop their potential.
But potential requires energy to develop. A rock on the top of a mountain has the potential to develop kinetic energy. It’s the gravity that causes it. But as long as nobody gives the rock a push, the potential is not utilised.
Unlike a rock, people can push themselves and exploit their own potential. People can stretch their potential by going beyond what other people believe they are capable of. But it requires discipline and effort. Nobody will excel in sports without discipline.
A coach once said that discipline is good for us, effort is not. Discipline reduces the need to put effort in something. If you exercise regularly (discipline), you wil not have to put extra effort in losing weight later. The effort compensates the lack of discipline. Of course discipline requires some effort too, mostly in the form of sacrifice. You invest time in one challenging thing (running a marathon), which means you cannot spend time on something easier (hanging out with friends).

Not alone

We like to think that we are responsible for our own destiny and so too many people think they are responsible for their own development. But even with the willpower to invest time and effort in exploiting one’s potential, most people cannot do it alone. The social (or motivational) context will shape the motivation. An athlete has parents, friends, peers, coaches to help. In an organization, the motivational context is shaped by the leader, the peers and the team members.
To develop this motivational context, leaders need to understand what people need. We all have this need to feel competent, to have autonomy and to feel a sense of purpose or belonging. In a safe and trusting context like this, people will be able to learn, experiment, make mistakes. They do not have to fear punishment when making a mistake. As they develop their competence, they will also be able to take on more responsibilities. A lack of autonomy would kill this drive. People who grow, outgrow limited spaces. The space they have must grow together with them. If not, they will find other spaces that fit.
A sense of belonging and purpose seems to be vital to developing potential. Children learn to walk and ride their bike because there’s a purpose. That purpose might be to be able to pick up things, carry toys, move faster, open doors. Or the purpose might be the parental satisfaction. If you have children, you might remember what you did when the child took its first step. You applauded, you cheered, you cried. Imagine that a leader would do that every time a member of the team would achieve a next level of competence and performance, thus developing potential further?

What you can do.

This is what you can do as a leader:

  • Build knowledge about basic psychological needs of people and how you can influence motivation.
  • Create a context that is safe enough for people to experiment.
  • Scan continuously for (hidden) potential. People will sculpt their job to the potential they have.
  • Challenge people by giving them difficult assignments too early, and be available to help. Explore the limits. Check people’s resilience.
  • Hire people because of their (suspected) future potential. And start developing as of day 1.
  • Don’t mind if someone with potential is hard to handle. Engage in debate and discussions.
  • Applaud achievement and progress. Praise people when they go beyond what they were able to do yesterday.
  • Be available to discuss progress (give feedback), values, purpose and to offer help during difficult moments.
  • Make sure people learn things they want to learn or because it’s meaningful, not because you ask them to.
  • Never put a lid on potential development. You harm the person and you harm your organization.
  • Encourage people to leave your organization if and when the context you can offer does no longer offer opportunities for growth.

Potential needs a push to develop. And that push comes from within but most certainly also comes from others.

I am a Leader. I am a Person. The Story of Themba (Pt 2)

This is the second part of the Story of Themba. Read the first part here.

The Aftereffects of Themba’s Breakdown

After Themba’s breakdown, Kate took him to a Psychologist. The final diagnosis was acute depression. He couldn’t believe the diagnosis. He went into denial. Themba was booked off work for a month. As an African man who was brought up to be strong at all times, for Themba depression was an indication of weakness. He felt guilty and embarrassed for having broken down in front of his colleagues. He swore that even if his CEO and Mr. Ngozi wanted him back, he will never show his face at work again. He thought his colleagues will never respect him as a man and leader. Themba locked himself in the house and started drinking heavily.
After a month, Kate could see that her husband’s health was deteriorating. She sent a request to Mr. Ngozi to extend Themba’s leave for another three months. After the three months, there seemed to be no improvement. Kate consulted the Psychologist to seek advice. She also paid a personal visit to Mr. Ngozi, Themba’s HR Director. She knew that her husband needed more time to deal with his guilt and embarrassment.

You are never too Experienced for a Mentor

Mr. Ngozi admitted to Kate that after Themba’s episode and what she said to him, he decided to consult one of his previous managers, Ms. Maluleke. He asked her to be his mentor. Mr. Ngozi realized that as an HR Manager he had failed Themba and all employees. He had allowed himself to be an order taker from the CEO and not the strategic partner that he was supposed to be. Through Ms. Maluleke’s help, he has rekindled his passion for being the conscience of the organization in the boardroom.
Mr. Ngozi had also appointed a consulting company to help with developing and implementing an Integrated Talent Management framework. Even though it was early days, Mr. Ngozi had noticed some changes in the employees. The tension in the corridors had lessened. The consultants had stressed the importance of implementing leadership development programmes focusing on leading self, others and the organization. These programs were aligned to the organisation’s vision, strategic priorities, leadership philosophy and values.
Mr. Ngozi knew that there was still a long way to go to embed the new behaviours and make them sustainable. Hence he appointed Executive Coaches for the Executive team to support them during the change. He was also in the process of appointing an Organisation Development practitioner to oversee Talent Management, Culture and other OD interventions to facilitate employee engagement. Mr. Ngozi thanked Kate for telling him the truth on the day that she picked up her husband. He assured her that Themba’s job was safe.

Time to Heal

Kate decided to take her family for a retreat. She told Themba that they were going on a month-long family holiday. Unbeknown to Themba, Kate had arranged coaching sessions with the owner of the retreat. Mr. Sibiya, the owner of the farm was an Executive Coach. He has experience in dealing with overworked Executives who had lost passion for life and their jobs.
Mr. Sibiya was an excellent host. Themba never suspected anything. He found it easy to talk to Mr. Sibiya. In one of their conversations, Mr. Sibiya gave Themba a note written “you will never feel truly satisfied by work until you are satisfied by life”. Themba read the note a number of times and pondered on it.
He asked himself if ever he was truly satisfied about his life. What exactly is life? What has he been doing all along? What does it mean to be satisfied by life? Was there a difference between life and work?
That night Themba couldn’t sleep. Kate woke up to an empty bed. She saw her husband writing furiously in his journal. She was happy to see the positive effects the retreat and Mr. Sibiya had on her husband.

Let the Coaching Begin!

The following morning, Themba went in search of Mr. Sibiya. He was excited about his reflections. He wanted to share them with his new found friend. On seeing Themba approaching, Mr. Sibiya knew that the Coaching sessions have just begun.
For the rest of the holiday, Themba and Mr. Sibiya met daily for Coaching sessions. Themba was not aware that he was being coached. Their discussions included Themba’s job, his breakdown, childhood, incorporating his responsibilities as a son, husband, father and leader at work. Mr. Sibiya always asked Themba thought-provoking questions. He encouraged Themba to write down his thoughts and practice mindfulness. Themba rediscovered his love for writing. The exercises gave him understanding, insight and peace into what happened.
On the last evening of their holiday, Themba thanked Kate for the holiday. He shared with her some of his reflections. The sessions with Mr. Sibiya had helped to reflect and clarify questions about:

  • His personal and family purpose and vision?
  • Leadership philosophy?
  • His beliefs, values and assumptions?
  • Is work separate from his life or a part of his life?
  • What does it mean to live an integrated life?
  • What has the breakdown taught him about himself, how to treat others and life in general?
  • How is he going to support his team members, peers and colleagues?

Themba vowed that from that day onwards, he was going to be authentic. He would be a man whom all the people connected to him are proud of. Most importantly he was going to take care of himself and team because he realized that they are total human beings. Themba promised to ensure that there is a balance between driving for business results and taking care of employees.

The Value of a Wise Spouse

Themba never found out that the whole retreat was planned by his wife. Kate was a wise woman. She let Themba believe that he had discovered a way to heal himself. She knew that great leaders make people say  “we did it ourselves”!
Thanks for reading this story to the end. You might want to reflect on it. Please do by commenting. If you like the story or if you think other people could benefit from reading it, don’t hesitate to share it through your social networks.

When Governance Becomes Terror: the Chief Discipline Officer

chief discipline officer

Chief Discipline Officer

A friend of mine works in an organization that went through a merger. Or was it an acquisition? Anyway, the new organization brought also a new function: the chief discipline officer. I had never heard of that function or job title before.
So I had to look it up. And this is what I found. Most of the times the title is Chief Discipline and Conduct Officer. And many of these jobs are in emerging countries as part of a UN peacekeeping missions. As I understand it, the Chief Discipline Officer must detect and react to behaviour that does not comply to values and rules. There is always a trio of prevention, enforcement and remedial.
Indeed, there are awful incidents with soldiers abroad: bullying, rape, torture, … And it’s clear that misconduct can undermine the very credibility of a mission. In such an environment exemplary behaviour is of the essence.


So let’s we zap back to corporate life. What does a Chief Discipline Officer do? And why does that role even exist?
The Chief Discipline Officer that I heard about seemed to only look for error, deviation, non-compliance. He seemed to focus on punishment as way of remedial, and not on prevention or correction. It became a blaming game.
Like with the soldiers abroad, people who misbehave within an organization pose a problem. But should it be left to a separate function to keep up good behaviour? Or should it not be the leader who makes sure that people behave according to the defined framework? And if we have audit, compliance officers, why would we need chief conduct officers?


So governance becomes terror when people abuse the power that  is inherent to the function. And the problem of power is that it can only be maintained by either keeping the other weak, or by increasing its intensity. If information is the basis of power, it can only be maintained by not sharing information. When knowledge is the basis, people can only keep it when they withhold knowledge from others. And by keeping people less competent. If it’s about pressure, people need to exert pressure on others and probably increase it over time. And what if the power comes from terrorising people, scaring them and threatening them with disciplinary action, dismissal? Would that work? Would it create enough fear to sustainably steer behaviour in the desired direction?
The abuse of power by a chief discipline officer is in itself a problem. What do people do when controls are such that people experience them as terror?

  • they can leave;
  • they can adapt;
  • they can develop strategies to mislead governance;
  • they can laugh at the absurdity of the role. Fear evaporates through humour. So does power.

Power is something strange. It’s valuable when it is not used. And it’s not because the incumbent has the power attached to the role, that he will get the authority needed to properly execute the role. On the contrary, When governance becomes terror, it loses its value.


The only way to make governance, including a role like the chief discipline officer, work is through trust. If people can trust those who govern, they will respect them. More, at that point governance gets the authority it deserves and needs. But trust is not gained by imposing, blaming and punishing. It is gained by explaining, respecting, helping. And whenever disciplinary action is appropriate, it requires an execution that is as much as possible respectful.
And maybe we should not imitate what’s needed in a sensitive and often hazardous peace keeping mission to corporate life. Come on.

6 Pro Tips for Unlocking Optimal Personal Productivity

Here’s how professionals increase their personal productivity. 6 simple tools and techniques to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of what you do.
Personal Productivity
We all want to get more done in less time as expectations for productivity increase to meet rising demands from more from clients, customers, and shareholders.
Technology can help with a range of software available to manage performance, increase productivity, and save you time and energy on the administration of some tasks. Unfortunately, though, tech can also be a distraction: social media, web browsing and reading blogs can all eat into the time we have to complete important daily tasks.
We decided to bring together some of the best hacks from influencers around the world on what they do to make sure their personal productivity is at optimal levels. Read on to find out how to stay on top of your schedule and do more day after day.

Personal Productivity Tip 1:
Single Tasking with the
Pomodoro Technique

This personal productivity hack is simple yet effective. It’s essentially about setting out a specific amount of time to complete particular tasks by managing distractions and allowing time for a short break to rest and restore focus once the allotted time has passed. All sorts of people use the Pomodoro Technique. Alex Hisaka uses it to manage online and social media tasks. Renee Warren uses the technique to help keep up a work/life balance.

Personal Productivity Tip 2:
Go Dark for an Hour or More Each Day

Simply shut off your email, phone, and other digital distractions.  By doing this you can focus on an important task each day. By eliminating distractions you’re forced to focus and thereby increase productivity. Anese Cavanaugh credits this technique (among others) for getting her through the previous year and coming out on top of all she needed to stay an industry thought leader.

Personal Productivity Tip 3:
Take a Break

Stepping away from work when you need to and not struggling on through allows you time to process information, problem-solve with a refreshed mind. It also stops you from burning out too quickly. Jonathan Raymond, founder of Refound, swears by it.

Personal Productivity Tip 4:

Along with improving concentration and overall brain function, Mary Carmichael formerly of “Newsweek” magazine reports that the effects of physical activity may also help in preventing a range of cognitive and neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. Ryan Holiday and Dave Kashen are also proponents of this technique for improving their productivity.

Personal Productivity Tip 5:
Inbox Zero

Email can be distracting: you’re absorbed in the task at hand and then ‘ping!’ your focus goes out the window as an email lands in your inbox. Not everyone is an advocate of this one, and not everyone understands exactly what Merlin Mann meant when he coined the phrase.
In his own words, “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”
So, check your email just twice a day (morning and evening, or morning and lunchtime if you prefer) and watch your productivity improve, just like Rand Fishkin.

Personal Productivity Tip 6:
Consider Your Strengths and Regulate

After looking at his list of things to do, Darren Virassammy pictures the strengths needed to complete each task. He groups similar tasks together to keep up focus and enable an efficient use of his energy.
There are countless ways to improve your personal productivity. What’s most important is that you find what works for you. And that you carry on practicing this technique or multiple techniques to become ever better at doing more in less time. By doing this you will achieve your perfect work/life balance. 
Thank you for reading this article. If you like it, please do not hesitate to share it on social media. 

Leadership Evolution: Act Like a Leader

Leadership Evolution

Leadership Evolution based on Action

A long time ago I read the book “Working Identity” by Hermina Ibarra. The basic idea of the book is that you could evolve from one career phase to another by doing things outside of the current role, as a preparation to a next role. The focus of career transition is not deep analysis and planning, but rather action.
The book “Act like a Leader” applies a similar thought to leadership and leadership evolution. The idea is that it isn’t through introspection that leaders can evolve in their role. It’s not about insight, but about outsight.
And so you can develop by changing the content of the job, changing the network and changing how you see yourself.

Are we confined to a Job?

But let’s ask ourselves. How difficult is it to redefine your job, your network, your self? Let’s start with a Job. Some people still think a function exists. The reification of the job description itself is a problem. Job descriptions are thoughts about how a job should or could be conceived. Even when it’s based on experience, the description itself becomes obsolete the moment its author hits the save button.
Nevertheless, some people still think we should confine someone to a job. This functional incarceration is unproductive and kills development. Leadership Development often fails because it does not take into account the levers and limitations the context in which leaders work offers. In restrictive environments doing what Ibarra suggests is revolutionary.
Leaving the premises of the job as designed, is an act of resistance, defiance. It shakes up the organization. Because reinventing the job can only mean two things. Either the leader takes existing territory and meddles with the responsibilities of others, or the leader enters unchartered territory and does new stuff.
We all know that an organization does not consist of mutually independent parts. There are always overlaps and grey zones. And what makes an organization tick is the willingness to collaborate to achieve a common target. Changing your job for the benefit of the organisation should receive applause, not criticism.

Leadership Evolution = Organizational Evolution

So if leadership evolution is about changing the way a leader acts (job, network, self), then it is also about changing the way an organization functions. And the question is if this should be a deliberate initiative or a process that should run its own course.
We know that job crafting just happens. People take a new role and the role changes. Two persons will never execute the same role in exactly the same way. They will always put their personality, insights, preferences, experiences into the role. And that’s a good thing. And this is also valid for leadership roles.
Job crafting is a spontaneous process. So I organisational evolution. If you want to change jobs and organisations deliberately than we could talk about job or organization design. In the latter leadership development as a deliberate act plays a crucial role. But leadership evolution is not (always) deliberate. It sometime happens. And when people change their roles, their networks and themselves by looking outside, then the organisation changes too.

Character-based Leadership

In my book on sustainable leadership I describe how leaders should use their character as basis for their leadership. Because it’s the only aspect that provides stability. If leaders base their leadership on position, power, popularity or pressure, it’s not sustainable.
But that does not mean that there is no evolution. Leaders need to adapt to the circumstances. When Ibarra writes about using the principle of outsight on the self, I can only agree. Leaders work with who they are. And that’s why I don’t like the concept of authentic leadership. Authenticity suggests stability. But people change and so do leaders. The challenge is that they should change for the better. Dan Cable from London Business school talks about using your best self. The idea behind this is that you can strive to be(come) a better person. And that means using the best qualities you have, and maybe suppressing the less positive qualities.

Aaah… Authenticity

Ibarra talks about the authenticity trap in her book. If you want to be authentic, you might feel a fake when you step up to (a higher level of) leadership. The challenge is to use your character as basis, but to decide how. And people should think about themselves in a future perspective. If being your stable self, means that you miss out on opportunities, then maybe you might consider evolving towards another self. But that does not mean you have to betray yourself. I believe if we have the courage to stick to our values and trying to be more effective at the same time leaders will still be seen as trustworthy.
Evolution is gradual, not radical. You cannot shed your job, your network and your self overnight. And that’s why leaders should experiment. Ibarra’s book gives some insights on how to handle this. Acting like a (better) leader, might help you to become a better leader. The same tactic might also help you to become a better person, a better parent, a better friend.

Protected Values: Context or Character

protected values

Protected Values

Meet Alexander Wagner. He studies human ethical behaviour. In his tedtalk he wonders why people behave in a trustworthy way, even when they cannot get caught cheating. So there are values that resist trade-offs with other values, particularly economic values. These are protected values (Baron & Spranca, 1997).

But these protected values are not always strong. Despite the many initiatives to avoid or prevent derailed behaviour, fraudulent behaviour never fully disappears. There is always a risk that even good people behave badly.
Wagner argues there are two ways to avoid fraud. You can hire people who have protected values. Or you can build incentives or policies to inspire honest behaviour. Guess which of both is more sustainable.
Trustworthiness has to do with loyalty and integrity and with competence. If the lack of trustworthiness is a result of low competence, it’s easy to handle. If it is a result of lack of loyalty or integrity, it’s difficult.

Control is not the Answer

We cannot build full-proof control systems. We cannot check every moment on every person. This would paralyse an organization (where’s the agility?). It’s also humiliating to those who do have protected values and are honest.
The issue of trust and trustworthiness within an organization is extremely important. Smug bastards might say that it is important not to get caught. And so we have a tendency to put elaborate control systems in place. Because we want to eliminate risks.
There is a long list of corporate scandals. There is a long list of people who have acted in ways that were illegal, dishonest, unethical. Companies have gone bankrupt because of this. Environment has suffered because of this. People suffer because of this. And we see this happening in both regulated and less regulated environments.


And the question is why that happens. It happens because people face temptations that make them behave in a way they might not want to.
What happens when we install exuberant bonus systems to motivate people to meet the targets? We inspire them to take risks and commit fraud.
What happens when we exert disproportionate pressure on people to perform? They might take shortcuts.
What happens when the culture is such that integrity is defines as “doing the right thing for the company”. We weaken moral awareness.
What happens when all that counts is money and shareholder value, instead of including other outcomes and stakeholders in the equation. We reduce ethical behaviour.
So not only do we need to hire people with high moral standards, we have to create a context in which the erosion of morality has little or no chance to occur. That means we have to design that context according to morals too.
Hiring people with character is one thing, designing a moral context is another. The context helps to protect values. And the basic principle of context design is easiness. Don’t make it difficult to commit fraud, make it easy to display trustful behaviour.


It all starts with leadership. In my Book on Sustainable Leadership I talk a lot about Trust and Trustworthiness. To me it’s the fuel of leadership. But we know that leadership both builds contexts and is a product of the context. That’s why we should base leadership on character and not on power, position or popularity. These are not sustainable sources and lead to erosive behaviour. Character is the only aspect of leadership that provides stability and trustworthiness.
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Culture as Organizational Glue: Beyond Rules.

Culture is the essential complement of rules to help organizations function effectively — concluding our three-part series on rules.

visited London for the first time when I was a teenager. As one might expect from a school trip, it contained numerous memorable experiences. Quite a few of these, my parents only heard about many years later.

Aside from those escapades though, two things really struck me during that trip. One of them was that there were penalty notices everywhere on the train and in the station. If you smoked where you shouldn’t, dropped litter, or activated the emergency brake inappropriately, you knew exactly how much it would cost you. That looked like a pretty good deterrent, and I did indeed see nobody smoking, dropping rubbish or pulling the emergency brake handle.

A Flash of Insight from the Bus Queue

The second thing were the queues (or lines) of people waiting for the bus. In one of them, I spotted a fierce-looking punk dude standing courteously and patiently behind an old lady — a most remarkable sight, I thought at the time.

For until that moment, I had never really noticed any big differences in people’s behaviour on trips abroad. I simply assumed people everywhere acted pretty much in the same way because I didn’t know any better. I guess that was the first time I realized (without actually realizing until much later) what an important role culture plays in how people behave.

And that applies not just in bus queues. As this post was taking shape, a snippet from a recent article by John Kay struck a chord:

“If we ask why [mobile phone] tariffs were once simpler and zero-hours contracts rare, and why chief executives only recently began to pay each other millions of pounds a year, the answer is in earlier days reputable companies did not think it appropriate to do these things. So the best answer is not to attack a few topical symptoms of excess, but to restore a culture that recognises corporations are above all social organisations.”

Just read that again: ‘did not think it appropriate’. What a superb description of organizational culture: doing what is appropriate, and not doing what is not appropriate.

Do we need a rule that says we shouldn’t pull the emergency brake willy nilly? Perhaps — but the people waiting for the bus were not neatly queueing because a rule told them so.


Well over a hundred years ago, Taylorism treated workers like mechanic creatures that could (and should) be made to follow precise rules to maximize efficiency. We have come a long way since then. Most organizations don’t need people that are compliant automata following instructions, but people who use their judgement, and make intelligent choices and decisions.

But that is not so easily achieved. As we suggested in The No Rules Illusion, people need guidance to make the ‘right’ choices and decisions. That means they must understand the organization, how it ticks, and what is important.

Rules can provide some of that guidance, but as we argued in The Rules Illusion, they can only take you so far before they become a burden to the organization.

He isn’t just a mean keyboard player.

Just like for the good people of London, guidance on how to act as a member of an organization is largely encompassed in its culture — implicitly or explicitly. Culture facilitates herd behaviour: we see how others behave, and copy what they do, especially in situations where we are unsure. Others copy us again, and so on.

Culture works on the Process, not on the Outcome

Can culture help people make the right decision? Not if we define the ‘right’ decision as the one with the best outcome. But if that is what we did, we would be succumbing to hindsight bias. Lottery winners get a good outcome, but that is not because they are better at picking their numbers than those who lose week after week.

Culture cannot help you win the jackpot, but it can give you guidance on how to engage in the right kind of decision-making. It should help you figure out how to make trade-offs in the organization.

Few people would contest that good decision-making ought to be based on evidence, rather than dogma or gut feel — it almost goes without saying. But to what extent is this actually reflected in an organization’s culture?

If a stranger were to walk around in your organization and observe the people at work, could she actually see them systematically gathering facts, requiring evidence when evaluating proposals etc? Making this behaviour part of the culture is not just a matter of laminated cards or fancy desk ornaments. It is much more a matter of ensuring people set the example and act out the idea at every occasion — not just business-critical decisions, but everywhere, from policies on remote working, to how conference rooms should be booked.

The Value of Values

But collecting evidence, and then weighing up and trading off the lot to calculate the best outcome is only one facet of good decision-making. There is another crucial element of guidance that forms part of the culture: the values of the organization.

Well-chosen values embody what is important for the organization. But values, too, need to be acted out to become part of the culture. Chris Argyris spoke about the difference between Espoused Theory (what we say we do), and Theory-in-Use (what we actually do). (Here is a slightly naff video illustrating the two theories.)

It is not the prominence of the values on the corporate website or on the inspirational posters in the corridors that bring the values to life. Whether it’s ‘the customer always comes first’, ‘respect for each other’ or ‘always be curious’, it is how people adopt and act out these values that will establish the culture. Only then (through the magic of the herding effect) can it help sustain a cohesive social organization.

In London, the advertised penalties I saw during my school trip may have deterred most people from dropping litter, but nevertheless I did see bits of rubbish lying on the ground. What I never saw, though, was the chaotic scramble for the door of the bus I was used to at home — not even at the rushest moments of the rush hour. In London, the punk and the old lady, and everyone else behaved very differently. And that had nothing to do with the existence (or even the absence) of rules.

There is a lesson here: culture is a crucial determinant of behaviour— in society, and in organizations.

This article was co-written with Paul Thoresen. You can find part 1 of this trilogy here, and part 2 here.
Originally published on New Organisational Insights.

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Organizational Innovation. Why is it so Difficult?

Organizational Innovation is difficult. We think too much in terms of the past, projects and structures. And very often time is not on our side.
Organizational Innovation
There has been a lot of discussion about new ways of working. Very often the topic gets reduced to telework or arty-farty office design. But it should be about organizational innovation. Organisational Innovation is a form of organizational design with a focus on stretching organizations to not only superficially alter the  way they work. It’s mostly aimed at developing new capabilities that help organizations to thrive and survive in a VUCA-world. So its final purpose is to create a sustainable advantage.
But organizations have a hard time changing. And organizational innovation seems to be difficult to implement and even more difficult to maintain. And here is why.

Thinking about the Past is Easier

It’s simply difficult to imagine a future identity. It’s hard for people, and it’s even harder for a collective like an organization. The future is difficult to grasp because it does not exist. The past is documented, but can make us complacent or conservative. “We have always done it like this” or “There is no alternative” are expressions that show the difficulty we all have to imagine ourselves in a future state. Thinking about the future might even induce fear.
We can look at tendencies to try to make the future more tangible. In fact we should scan the environment for disruptions, because it helps to integrate a vision on the future in our current organizational decisions. Having a bright and fluid vision about the future helps to become agile and fearless. Here’s an example: R/GA has developed future vision to gather and share new ideas on the future. Go and take a look.

Instead of thinking about the past, we should think about the future. A bright and fluid vision about our future helps to become agile and fearless.

Thinking in Projects is Easier

Organizational Innovation can never stop, because the context changes continuously. That’s why organisational innovation should never be a project with a defined end. It’s a process of continuous adaptation. Organizations are like living entities that go through rapid evolution. It’s difficult to put a start date and certainly impossible to put an end date on it. So why bother?
But we live in a world where timings and deliverables are important. So I suggest to monitor organizational change by looking at incrementality. The idea behind this is that small steps create value. We can measure small steps and their impact. And we can also correct small steps. So organizational innovation is not about creating a big bang. It’s about taking two steps forward, and sometimes one step back.
The thing is that thinking in incrementals forces you to think about creating value instead of about being in time, budget, or scope. It also enables us not to fix targets that are too far away, not to fix directions we are not sure of and not to fixate a future vision that should change anyway.

Instead of thinking in projects, we need to think in incrementality. It helps to focus on value and to get rid of fixed ideas.

Thinking in Structures is Easier

When people think of organizations, they see boxes and lines. They think of structure. But Organisational Innovation is not (only) about structure. Structure is the last thing to consider in Organisational Innovation. Organisational Innovation is about creating context. Organizational Innovators think of organizations in terms of the external and internal context. The external context is that busy, bad world that threatens and invites at the same time. The internal context is the context an organisation can influence:

  1. its relationships with partners, employees, customers, governments and other stakeholders, … Ecosystems are not structures.
  2. its choices of technology, territory, talent, operation model, value chain, processes, … the tangible hardware of the organization.
  3. its culture, purpose, leadership, … the software of the organization.

But the structural thinking is strong. And in itself it’s not wrong to think in structures when thinking about organizations. But, we need to realise that a structure does not solve much. If anything, it gives people a sense of orientation within an organization. It might nudge people towards desired behaviour. But alas, very often the lines and the boxes are limiting the minds of people.
I have always wondered why people get so boxed in and say things like “it’s not in my job description“, or “I’m not responsible“, or “I am not allowed to work on that“. People adapt to structures and structures are as effective as the people working in them. So instead of working on structures it’s beter to think about capabilities like collaboration, leadership, time-to-market. Organizational Innovation is about building capabilities. And collaboration is probably one of the most important capabilities for the future. Structures are too often a matter of coerced collaboration.

Instead of thinking in terms of Structures, we need to think of fluid capabilities, collaboration being one of the most important ones.

Organizational Innovation needs a Mindset.

When organizations get praise for their innovative approach, we should be sceptic about the sustainability of the innovation. Like every change, innovation requires attention, energy. There is no such thing as a stable design. Organizational Innovation requires constant attention. So one of the reasons why it fails, apart from the difficulties to think about the futures, incremental value and capabilities, is that we fail to invest enough time. Every system that is not supported and provided with energy, falls apart, derails or yields undesired results.
Therefore organizational innovation should be a habit. Like dental Hygiene. And it’s a matter of more people than we can imagine. And when we drown in daily problems, the shit of yesterday and the operational concerns, we cannot find the time to innovate.

Organizational Innovation is a matter of mindset, it’s more a habit than a task.


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Here are some other blogs on organizational innovation and design.

4 Elements of Successful Reward and Recognition Programmes

Are reward and recognition programmes really worth their bother? They’ve played a leading role in many employee engagement strategies for decades, but it’s a question employers justly ask us every day.

These employers hear about R&R’s ability to increase retention, and, by extension, revenue. Although this is true in many cases, it’s a broad claim that’s unlikely to convince the more sceptical of CFOs (or even the less sceptical ones, for that matter).
The truth is that a decent reward and recognition programme is worth more than the sum of its parts: free coffees and cinema tickets make for a happy team, but perks are just the tip of the iceberg.
Because happy employees aren’t necessarily engaged employees – not in the context of retention rates and productivity levels, anyway. When we talk about R&R’s ability to have real financial impact, we’re referring to ROI and sensible things like data and measurement.

The nuts and bolts of reward and recognition

Put simply, reward and recognition programmes enable managers to reward and recognise their employees’ work. No surprises there. But these interaction can range from an official appraisal for reaching a milestone, to a hat-tip for a job well done.
In fact, the humble ‘thanks’ is one of the most powerful forms of recognition. Back one up with a tangible reward, memorable experience or bonus, and it’ll instill a long-lasting positive association to the organisation within the employee.
What’s also powerful is public recognition, which comes part and parcel of a good programme. Shout-outs for achievements are more effective when they’re open for all to see, whether through the company’s shared intranet system or in a newsletter.
Figuring out what fits your organisation is a good starting point. Learning what your people want to receive and how they want to receive it doesn’t have to be complicated, simply ask them through a survey.

But why do we need one?

We recently ran a survey of 2000 UK-based employees to find out what makes them tick – and what doesn’t. It found that over a third (35%) are cheesed off by poor communication in the office, while almost as many (32%) lamented the lack of reward and recognition for their work.
But here’s the big one (and the last stat we’ll offer): 66% said that regular personalised benefits – such as cost-saving perks and gym memberships – would be appreciated as recognition for their loyalty.

4 elements of successful reward and recognition programmes

The key is to align any R&R initiative with your organisation’s goals, that could mean improving skills or increasing retention. The cultural aspect will follow.
While noting there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and that management fundamentals such as communication and mentoring come first, here are four elements to R&R that we find work well.
1. Instant recognition
Quarterly meetings (or worse, annual reviews) are stuffy ways to reward staff – not least because the smaller (yet important) achievements will likely be forgotten.
Instant feedback carries a ‘surprise and delight’ quality, and makes whatever the rewarded action, behaviour or task all the more likely to be repeated. In this instance, the element of personal progression outweighs material gain.
2. Leadership participation
People managers are the captains of companies; their words and opinions carry clout (more so than many realise). When they display gratitude and appreciation, the company listens and morale is boosted.
This doesn’t mean indiscriminate back-patting, it’s a about creating a positive top-down culture that makes employees feel like valued members of teams.
3. Gratitude
An employee who goes to lengths to cover for an absent colleague shouldn’t go unnoticed. Remember these initiatives exist to reward the behaviour that achieves business goals, even if it is in a small and incremental way.
What’s immediately noticeable, though, is the impact these gestures have on organisational culture. Never underestimate the power of ‘thank you’.
4. Personalisation
As mentioned earlier, two thirds of employees said they would appreciate personalised benefits as recognition for their work done. Clearly the idea of remuneration is being recast. Innovative R&R programmes are becoming one of the strongest ways for organisations to standout in a recruitment scenario.
What springs to mind when you hear the words Facebook and Google in the context of HR? Chances are it’ll be something out of the ordinary – and they are two of the most sought after gigs in town.
Download our whitepaper now to find out how reward and recognition can form an integral part of your employee engagement strategy.