Monday, 11 August 2014

Leadership lessons - Shifting the boss/worker paradigm

A few weeks ago I was in the company of some former colleagues from my days as a union official. There were some people I was genuinely delighted to see. Years had passed and there were many questions about how I was now spending my time. I responded with passion and enthusiasm about the variety of things I'm working on, including leadership development for some big organisations. I was struck by the number of people who asked me outright, "Have you moved to the other side?"

The first time I was struck by the boldness of the question and could only manage a "no". After a few times, I started to react to the question with its inherent judgement and lack of curiosity. I pushed back.

"Why is leadership development perceived as being on the other side? What is the "other side" anyway?"

The answers were simplistic echoes of old class wars: you're supporting the bosses instead of the workers.

It was old-fashioned, limited thinking. I thought about the number of union members I'd talked to who had fallen victim to unskilled bosses and thought how much better it is for everyone if leaders in business are skilled in the business of leading their people. My response was met with a shrug.

People with locked in positions about workplace politics aren't limited to people working for trade unions.  In a recent conversation with senior leaders we were discussing what is within our control and considering where we focus our attention and energy. The group nodded and acknowledged the wisdom of understanding this. Then a member of the group said they hated the fact that they knew their team members would go "straight to the union" after particular conversations with them. I could see their frustration and feel the temperature in the group increase as others agreed.

I asked what bothered this leader about the actions of their people. They told me they had no control over how messages were conveyed to the union. I asked whether the team members were doing something wrong in talking to their union. The group agreed that there was nothing wrong with this. The frustration remained.

"What would happen if you acknowledged, out loud, the conversations that they would have with their union?" Uncomfortable shuffling ensued.

"What would happen if you facilitated that conversation somehow?" Angry eyes looked at me.

"After you speak to your team, how can you control who they speak to next? What they say?"

Further frustration boiled over: "We can't!" "We just have to accept it!" came the responses.


Imagine what might happen if the focus changed. Instead of directing energy in a negative way towards a futile goal (ie stopping people talking to each other), consider the power of accepting what is not within your control and instead directing energy in a positive way, for example facilitating or nurturing a relationship, starting a conversation.

It fascinates me that the people who are in the relationship of employer and union are often misguided about the nature of that relationship. Many probably would disagree with the concept that a relationship even exists. Even sworn enemies have a relationship with each other.

Where do you put your energy? Is it within your control? What would happen if you shifted your focus?

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