Mayvin_Senior Leaders Learning Organisation Development OD Breakdowns Leadership Return on Investment RoI Action Research method

Fear of learning: from the top?

Do Senior Leaders shy away from uncovering the truth about the breakdowns in their businesses? Is this why we sometimes experience organisations as incapable of integrating the learning we provoke?

At Mayvin we often grapple with the challenge of making sure that the learning we facilitate in our clients’ businesses is fully integrated. We ourselves have an ‘Advisory Board’, whose role is to make sure we walk our own talk when it comes to taking full advantage of learning ourselves.

Recently I saw my daughter perform in a dramatic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. There was a line in this play that resonated with a recent question our Advisory Board had posed us: How do we need to work differently to make sure that the learning we provoke is fully exploited by our clients? In the play, one character, says to, ‘K’, the victim of the faceless miscarriage of justice around which the story revolves:

‘Behind these doors are an infinite number of people, in an infinite number of rooms, each with only a tiny idea of what is going on behind the other doors, and even less interest in it’.

This line explains what Kafka is really trying to say in The Trial, and what we are trying to undo in Organisation Development (OD). It is a sad fact of the human condition that our focus tends to narrow to what is in front of our noses, especially when we are under pressure. Collective intelligence then breaks down. In such a disconnected system, it is all too easy for our colleagues and customers to disappear down the cracks. No one designs it this way. It is just a symptom of the busy bureaucracies we create. It is more cock-up than conspiracy, and it is true of any organisation, large or small, in any sector.

OD’s job, it seems to us, is to face this fact of life, and rebuild the connections. This means raising awareness to the breakdowns in the system, both human and technical. There may be a further twist to the plot here, though, and that is that the more responsibility people have, the less they have the time in their minds to be disturbed by these uncomfortable truths. The most senior people, (the ‘Tops’, as human systems thinker Barry Oshry calls them), who as Oshry says, by definition often feel most burdened by the responsibility of their role, may have the least capacity to take on board anything that further disturbs their hard-won equilibrium. In fact they may unconsciously fear further disturbance, and may even defend against hearing about it. This is a product of the divided, bureaucratic nature of the systems we create, not a personal failing of theirs, but nevertheless it becomes personal if they fail to spot and address this dynamic. So part of the business’s resistance to learning may stem from them.

Can we support this audacious claim with evidence? I think we can. Firstly, it is a commonly held axiom that senior teams may only hear the good news. Is this because people fear the defensive response they may get if they share anything other than ‘everything’s fine!’ with their boss? I recently encountered a Chief Executive who was very resistant to hearing how the top team that she led was widely perceived to be the main one in the organisation that was failing to live up to the better behaviours implicit in the new value set we had help to create. Now this could have been because of my inability to deliver the message, but I counter that it should be on her, being paid the big bucks, whom the onus might be, to see past ‘shoot the messenger’, no matter how artless.

Another significant phenomenon I notice is the resistance to measuring Return on Investment (RoI) in a leadership or OD programme. I have often heard people say that finding RoI on such programmes is the ‘holy grail’ and it is impossible to do. I don’t think this is so. It is no doubt a challenge to measure the connection between attitude, behaviour change and business performance. It needs a carefully crafted Action Research method. At Mayvin this is our speciality; we regularly offer our clients the opportunity to measure the connection between what we do and the business outcomes that may follow. It is often the clients who don’t seem to want to follow through.

Could it be because in doing so, they may uncover stories of problems and breakdowns that will make them feel intolerably burdened?

Back to the challenge our advisory board posed us – how can we help, if this may be so? Surely this will be a major part of the challenge when helping our clients integrate their learning? This is often where being an external consultant can help – we have greater leeway in delivering the riskier messages. But we must also make sure it is part of our job to help skill those within the business to do the same, and by learning to manage our own fears, help them manage theirs. It is also vital that in the setting up of the programme, we make it very clear to the powers that be that unless they are up for the challenge that the learning may present them, they won’t get the impact they are paying for.

Only recently we met with a top team who were sponsoring a leadership programme we are running in a large, commercial organisation. We were at pains to say, ‘how are you going to be if the people on this programme step up in a way you may not immediately like?’ We had a range of answers: by and large, most were honest that they may feel uncomfortable about it, but that they could see it was part of their role to respond in a way that didn’t undermine this learning. It bodes well, but that’s just the theory sorted. Now let’s see what happens in practice…