On leadership and behavioural intervention

There has been such an abundance of learning through the behavioural dynamics work we’ve been engaged in since the last time I wrote a series of blogs on intervention almost 2 years ago. We continue to support and challenge the senior leaders we work with using our Dialogix Model for behavioural intervention and never fail to feel profound appreciation for the individuals and teams that take up the challenge to fully attend to the behavioural components of their leadership. This is particularly pertinent when it’s those individuals who at the outset of the work are the ones that appear to exhibit some of the most resistant and stuck behaviours when we first meet them, but who actively grab hold of the metaphorical behavioural baton we hold out to them and run with it.

George [not his real name] is a shining example of this. On the first day of a transformational change programme we were supporting, he had sat opposite me with his arms folded, staring straight at me but with his gaze fixed just over my left shoulder and refusing to say anything at all. Months later, we were facilitating a follow-up session to explore and learn from a situation where parts of the system had failed to implement aspects of their new change plans that had long been agreed and tested prior to a ‘go live’ date. Along with the CEO and Executive Directors, George was also in that session and I almost couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. The CEO could barely contain his excitement about George’s participation either. George was active and engaged, he kept coming in with ideas and voiced his concerns offering correction through overtly Opposing but in the most constructive way. There was a genuine excitement and palpable enthusiasm about working strategically and leading the organisation more effectively than ever before even during these most difficult times. There was also greater clarity than ever before that success in attending to the challenges they were facing in this recent ‘failure to implement’ lay in working on the way they interacted with one another, in focusing on the behavioural aspects of their leadership.

So what had changed for George and others in this system?

There were a host of different factors including the ways in which the CEO had been building trust and confidence within his team and this was definitely beginning to be felt across the organisation. Senior leaders were enacting what they were espousing behaviourally by modelling their values through their leadership. Long gone were the days of retribution and punishment for ‘getting things wrong’ or ‘failing’ in some way. They were writing a new narrative for the organisation, one that truly embodied what they espoused about being a system that prioritised learning.

We had also engaged in a painstaking process of facilitating the involvement of leaders within the organisation who had historically been stuck in Opposing every direction set by the most senior leaders; people like George who had previously been perceived as one of the most resistant to change and difficult to deal with. So often the tendency is to try to isolate and suppress Opposition rather than to learn from it. It seems counter-intuitive to proactively bring Opposition to the surface so as to draw out what it might be offering in terms of wisdom about the system, how it functions and why aspects of any proposed change may simply not work. Yet, this is the work to do.

Instead of Opposing covertly, which had been endemic in the system, we also saw that many of the conversations that were taking place across the organisation had a new and exciting edge to them that hadn’t been there before. This edge was emanating from the Oppose, which was coming into the room more and more and in very healthy ways. What we also began to notice was that members of the team who had been ‘Silent Bystanders’, in other words, individuals who were not voicing their perspective or what they were noticing in service of the system, were now making the most phenomenal and powerful Bystands both of self and what they were seeing play out in the room behaviourally. There was growing recognition of the necessity for and impact of the Bystand and its critical role in liberating the Oppose because of how it helps a team be highly skilful in the way it navigates change with all the pitfalls and turbulence that are so often a feature of complex change processes.

Overall, members of the team are talking about things in completely new ways and are invigorated by what they are discovering. They are really enjoying getting beneath and back of what gets put on their agendas by going to the heart of what challenges them behaviourally and identifying what they will do to address these challenges. They are still tested in their ability to Follow well, in other words, to achieve completion or land support for some of the directions they are setting. It would be all too easy for them to locate the reason for this in others, blaming ‘them’ for ‘their’ stuck Opposition but this is also in part because of their own individual and collective propensity to make prolific and often very random Moves. Their own creativity and the generation of multiple ideas dominates everything else at times and is a behavioural pattern that doesn’t always serve them well. The Move is the vocal act that provides direction in a conversation and is often the behaviour that gets rewarded most in a leadership context but as a consequence can be overused and create unproductive stuck patterns of behaviour at times. So there is still behavioural work to do but with a clear method for attending to leader behaviours, this team is not phased by this phenomenon because they have the means to work on their behavioural dynamics in extraordinary ways.