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Five reasons teams are dysfunctional

I was recently asked to run a team-building workshop based on the 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Let me summarise what author Patrick Lencioni laid out in his gripping fable about how Kathryn Petersen, DecisionTech’s newly installed CEO, faced the ultimate leadership crisis: uniting a team in such disarray that it threatened to bring down the entire company.

For most of the book it is uncertain as to whether she would succeed, but her experience from elsewhere allowed her to work with the awkward set of characters who made up the senior management team, and against all odds the company survived.

Lencioni is of the view that teams are inherently dysfunctional, made up of imperfect individuals who suffer from inflated egos and pursue selfish goals. Here’s how the book opens: “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

I’ll comment later on that view, but let me continue with his valid conclusion that strong and deliberate steps must be taken to facilitate teamwork. The fictional book shows how a skilled team leader can do a great deal to make their team effective, and it takes us through Kathryn’s manoeuvres to rescue the dysfunctional group of characters the board had hired her to sort out.

Through his story, Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the heart of why teams struggle so badly. At the base of his pyramid of dysfunctions lies the absence of trust, which prevents team members from showing vulnerability within their group.

In the context of building a team, trust enables team members to be confident that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. Teammates must become comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

Above mistrust comes fear of conflict, where those involved seek artificial harmony over constructive, passionate debate. Next, and again as a result of the lower dysfunction, is lack of commitment, merely pretending to buy in to group decisions, thereby creating ambiguity and lack of clarity.

All this sees team members avoid holding each other accountable, with low standards the consequence. And finally there’s lack of focus on results, as status and ego interfere with harmonised action.

To conclude, therefore, Lencioni urges us to find people who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decisions, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team and not on own egos.

While the book is certainly exciting to read, full of breakthroughs and setbacks, I emerged less than convinced by Lencioni’s pessimistic view of human nature, and I also had reservations about his exclusive focus on overcoming the negative dysfunctions while insufficiently nurturing their positive counterparts.

Lencioni has his CEO relish conflict as a means of resolving issues, and while where there are conflicts they should indeed not be avoided, I am not convinced that she need have taken her team on such a painful journey.

Indeed in my workshop I had the team focus on how to build on the positive aspects within their team of the five functions of trust, dealing with conflict, commitment, accountability and focus on results.

It’s a great quintet of team factors, but my approach of working with “Appreciative Inquiry” would have me guide Kathryne differently. Also, my experience is different from Lencioni’s in that I have not found teamwork to be “so rare”.

However, I strongly recommend that you read the book, since it will stimulate you – as it did me – to reflect deeply on how people behave and what drives them, and then to assess whether the approach Lencioni advocates is the one you as a leader would feel is the one to adopt. It’s a book you won’t want to put down.

Before the workshop, the team members were also invited to watch a TED talk by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson that nicely complemented the Lencioni book.

Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8 The essence of her talk was that where there is complexity, uncertainty and interdependence, one should promote curiosity and experimentation, accept fallibility, and so deliver psychological safety. Sounds like good advice.

The personal drivers to success

I recently facilitated a very interesting workshop that brought together Africa region’s leaders of a long-established multinational. Thanks to Covid, this was the first time they were meeting physically, and this under their recently installed president.

As we were preparing the workshop he told me he wanted to share with his team what he described as his “personal success drivers”, his “rules for himself”.

Having come up with this thought, and looking back on other teams he had led, he regretted not having shared such thoughts with them, as a result of which he realised they weren’t sure what his expectations would be, either of himself or of them.

While fully accepting that it’s not how he always behaves, it is how he knows he should. “I am sharing these thoughts with you so that you get to know me better,” he explained, adding “I know that if I state my intentions publicly you will hold me accountable to do as I say.” All so impressive.

The first of his big three drivers, taken from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, is getting the right people on the bus, and in the right position. Addressing performance issues decisively is uniquely challenging work, he acknowledged, and tolerating second best has a very negative impact, resulting in unfairness, toxicity and lethargy.

Job number two, he continued, is creating a winning culture where everyone is operating at their best. “Do my manager, my team, my work environment, my business make me feel like I’m all-in?” they need to ask.

Thirdly, he believes it’s the biggest current businesses and the biggest opportunities that must always get most of his attention: the 80:20 rule.

He then listed his remaining seven drivers, all to do with empowering the best talent relative to the biggest priorities. When it matters, he likes understanding business issues and business plans “in data-based depth”, appreciating that questioning assumptions is a great way to learn, as is history.

“If we are not defensive about past mistakes, weaknesses, unmet needs and gaps with others, then each gap becomes an opportunity to grow our business,” he declared.

He wants to talk about the business the way it is, not the way people want it to be. “Face the brutal facts so we can do something about them,” he urged, acknowledging that balancing communication is an art form and separates good leadership from bad.

Trust is key to this, and rating performance on results, analysing what is working and what is not.

He will be transparent, and he does not like filtering information from his team, while trusting that everyone will to do the same. They must all “question, challenge, confront and clarify”. He then admitted to “overcommunicating”, repeating himself so as to ensure the full absorption of his messages.

And he called for “good sense email practice”. His organisation has recently introduced a matrix structure, and this is always a challenging environment within which to communicate and coordinate. But the team must get used to working within the matrix.

Don’t surprise him, he requested, and he won’t surprise them. He is accountable to his people, he readily accepted, for handling interactions with his seniors on “the tough stuff”.

And he cares deeply about how happy they feel working with each other. If something he’s doing is not working for them, he wants them to tell him. He will do the same, but as trust is being built, a go-between may be helpful.

The junior most person who is qualified to lead the way should do so, he continued, challenging such people to present proposed solutions with every challenge. For this to work well they must be empowered.

And asking the right questions will provide the path to such empowerment and hence enable the people to deliver success. “This is always better than telling people what to do,” he concluded, asking the team to help him avoid the “it’s faster if I do it” trap.

Finally, he insisted that “it is not ‘OR’, it’s ‘AND’.”, as lazy choices must be avoided. It is not, for instance, a choice between focusing on financial results or on people, or between short and long-term results. It is both.

Taming the abuse of power

Readers of this column will have seen previous articles of mine in which I have written about Leaders Circles I have facilitated with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar. The last one was about sustainability, and the theme of our most recent one was “How we deal with power: from victim to perpetrator to victim”.

We’ve all heard that “information is power”, and as Frank and I looked up other suitable quotes before our story-telling gathering we came across some useful provocations, including “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best,” from doomsday merchant Edward Abbe; and, also pessimistically, William Gaddis shared that “Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.”

More upliftingly, Lao Tzu told us that “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” And Alice Walker reminded us that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

How power is wielded lies at the centre of whether things work or don’t work, we briefed our participants as we invited them to the event. Power itself is values-neutral. So at what point does it become good or bad? Where and how does abuse begin?

Who determines that power was indeed abused? How is it even possible that power does get abused? Does it happen when moral concepts are excluded from the exercising of power? When corruption is used to distort rules of the game that had been based on a broad consensus? When individual powerful people lose all sense of self-awareness and proportion?

We are seeing that too many neurotics and egocentrics are key players in the power game. And as a result, we give up on essential issues out of comfort, thoughtlessness or anticipatory obedience. They then take advantage of the resulting vacuum. Are we not to blame for this?

So how do you tame the abuse of power? As leaders, you cannot do without power. How do you empower yourself and others? And how far may or must you go in order to gain (back) power and influence?

How do the exercise of power and ethical action coexist, for there are fewer and fewer fixed reference systems? Exercising power without stepping over the boundaries of individuals is not possible. But is it possible to exercise power while remaining innocent? It is undoubtedly a question of balance.

We were interested to hear where and how those who participated in our event have succeeded in keeping power in the good area, and this we certainly did. We learned about the challenge of leading volunteers, in business and professional organisations, and in service clubs like Rotary and Lions.

And we talked about the need to “decolonise” and spread decision-making from the over-influential Global North towards the Global South, including in how research funds are allocated.

We also heard stories of power abusers – from our own traffic police to Vladimir Putin – and of being the direct victims of more powerful and unconstrained players.

One spoke about the fragility of power, as evidenced in the Arab Spring (and more recently in Sri Lanka, and with Johnson in the UK); while another worried about the constraints faced by the UN Security Council in fulfilling its mission of holding the world together.

I reflected that rather than wanting to feel powerful, my expectation was and is that I can be of influence, and above all in bringing people together – as a mediator, an integrator, a connector.

I enjoy helping others to building their capacity so I can empower them, and hence delegate to them. I see the goodness of power-sharing, which requires openness and trust.

Here I am, deep into my third age, a time of life when most of us no longer expect to wield direct power (except, perhaps, in the political arena). One way in which I hope I am being of influence is through these columns.

A few weeks ago I published by 400th one, and this one marks fifteen years since by first contribution here. My sense has always been that I largely preach to the already converted, but my hope is that my readers will emerge reinforced in their views, and so promote them more boldly. I might even convert a few here and there, and who knows, perhaps enable them to become more powerful.

In closing, I urge you to exercise your power by voting next month for men and women who will wield power responsibly. Or else you will be their victims. But hey, I’m preaching to the converted.

How people adapt to national cultures

In my last article I wrote about the four elements that, according to the Adizes Institute, make a fully functional manager or, more likely, a functional management team: Producer, Administrator, Entrepreneur and Integrator (PAEI).

Today I follow up with an article I was sent by Rufat Jahangirov, a senior member of the Adizes Institute team, in which he reflected on the influence of national cultures in designing and delivering their programmes on organisational transformation in ways that are compatible with countries’ national values.

It led me to think about how and to what extent I adapt the way I engage with organisations depending on where I am doing so.

I am privileged to have been exposed to a wide variety of cultures, from my Jewish Romanian background to my upbringing in London, with time in France and the US, to my life here in Kenya since 1977. Plus my travels to many other countries around the world, usually as a tourist but sometimes also as a consultant.

Jahangirov refers to the work of Geert Hofstede on the interactions between national and organisational cultures. Hofstede first examines Vertical Power Distance, the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

He then looks at Horizontal Distance, the degree to which people in a society have an independent versus interdependent concept of self.

In societies with high Horizontal Distance – individualistic societies – people’s goals are generally independent from their ingroups; their social behaviours are driven by attitudes, values and beliefs; and they emphasise rationality in evaluating and choosing their social relationships.

On the other hand, in low Horizontal Distance – collectivistic – societies, people are born into extended families or kinship systems that protect them in exchange for giving them loyalty.

Hofstede also studies Uncertainty Avoidance, which defines the degree to which people in society feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations.

Not to be confused with risk avoidance, members of an Uncertainty Avoiding culture take risks as long as they believe they know them. People in Uncertainty Avoidance societies usually prefer clear rules as to how one should behave.

Next Hofstede examines Masculinity versus Femininity. Masculine cultures are ones where men should be assertive, competitive, tough and focused on material success, while women should be focused on the quality of life, maintaining warm personal relationships, offering service, and caring for the weak. Feminine cultures are ones in which emotional gender roles overlap.

Finally, he contrasts Long-term versus Short-term orientation.

Jahangirov notes that it is easier to generate “energy for change” in countries with low vertical distance, high horizontal distance, low uncertainty avoidance and high long-term orientation. He also correlates Hofstede’s culture differentiators with the values and characteristics of the PAEI Adizes management roles and styles.

P and A are short-term oriented roles, whereas E and I are long-term oriented, they have found. Additionally, P and A are the attributes of autocratic management, displaying high Vertical Distance, while E and I preferences lead to more egalitarian decision-making, which suggests low Vertical Distance.

P and E are both independent and individualistic styles, typified by high Horizontal Distance, whereas A is mechanically collectivistic and I is organically collectivistic, reflected in low Horizontal Distance. The A style is characterised as Uncertainty Avoiding, while E is its opposite: Uncertainty Accepting… actually, seeking.

There appears to be no correlation of Uncertainty Avoidance with either P or I management styles. And finally, P is a predominant characteristic of a Masculine culture, while I is the one of a Feminine culture. Both E and A can be either Masculine or Feminine.

It’s hard enough to change cultures even in one’s own back yard, Jahangirov has found, and reflecting on his wonderfully thought-provoking article has filled me with further ways of describing cultures and helping them develop to better places.

What is my experience with how different cultures have led me to adapt my interactions with others? Like Jahangirov, I am at least as aware of sub-cultures, within both countries and organisations, requiring yet more sensitivity on the part of consultants. But you’ll have to wait for another fortnight before reading more about that.

Before closing, let me mention that this is my 400th Business Daily column, and that next month will mark the 15th anniversary of my first one. More later on that too.

Uplifting tales of personal transformation moments

In 2011 I wrote a column on how I had been collecting moments of personal transformation in people’s lives.

I did so through having participants in some of my workshops share such moments with each other as a way of opening up and also showing they were as likely to continue experiencing such moments in future.

It is these uplifting stories that led my colleague Frank Kretzschmar and me to select this as the theme of our latest Leaders Circle, where we again invited a small group of leaders to a story-telling afternoon.

As always, before they arrived Frank and I, having researched quotations on the theme, wrote a selection of them onto flip charts that we taped to the walls around the room, and here are a few of our favourites, first from Abraham Maslow (famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs”): “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth.

“Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” Then, Buckminster Fuller’s “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” Finally (I wish I had space for more), from Lao Tzu, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

So how did we talk about our transformative moments? Not surprisingly, several stories related to revelations arising out of these Covid times, which revealed the fragility of life and how we must not take it for granted. As a consequence, this led several of us to re-evaluate both our activities and our attitudes.

“Before I was thinking of early retirement, but no longer, as I love what I do,” we heard from one. And from another (me): “How I survived my heavy bout of Covid led people to describe me as a fighter, encouraging me to accept the label.”

Some of what we’ve been through should better be described as evolution rather than transformation, we heard, as we are constantly challenged to change and adapt. Much of what happened to us was unplanned and unpredicted – maybe even just due to luck, either good or bad.

For each of those in the room, however, all leaders in our own right, by and large, we took advantage of the circumstances in which we found ourselves. We were bold in stepping forward when opportunities arose, and having to dealing with setbacks was common.

“I am because we are,” was how one participant headlined a story from the time he was a student.

“I came across a limping old beggar in Meru and took an interest in him, so he asked me why I wanted to know him. He had been a freedom fighter, and so if it were not for him I wouldn’t be who I am. He became poor so I could be rich. It was a moving, transforming moment for me, and this revelation of truth set me free.”

Another leader acknowledged how he was transformed by the strong values of his Maasai community in which he was brought up, values he is so proud of. Had he come from a different kind of environment he might have just become a street boy, he mused.

As we heard stories of personal transformation, we also reviewed such moments at the national level, with some more enthusiastic than others about the progress having been made and the outlook.

And in between, within the organisations where we operate, several spoke of their evolution into purpose-driven entities, where concern for their employees, the communities around them and other stakeholders became the norm.

Among the reflections we heard about the importance of viewing our cup of life as half full rather than half empty; and about how transformation favours the bold – those who are blessed with the courage to hope. It is why we heard that transformation starts with each of us. “It is for me to change others, not wait for others to do so,” posed one.

Let me conclude by reporting that prior to our Leaders Circle I shared the topic with my daughter and her husband and children. Guess what? The young ones had already experienced their own transformative moments. Do reflect on yours… and have your young ones share theirs with you.

Managing change in Kenya

This article was first published in November 2021 in the London Business School THINK magazine. Mike Eldon graduated from the LBS Sloan Masters Programme in Leadership and Strategy.


An LBS Sloan Fellow recalls being thrown into his first leadership role and going on to transform the organisational culture.

Three years after completing the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy programme in 1974, ICL – the British computer multinational for which I was working – transferred me from the UK to Kenya to run its subsidiary there. It was my first major management appointment, leading around 100 Kenyans – including a senior management team that was just taking over from a group of British expatriates and for whom this was therefore also a baptism in leadership.

My British bosses expected me to be a distant, feared and unsmiling instruction-giver, as my expat predecessors had been. To a significant extent my direct reports also expected such behaviour, never mind those in more junior positions. These were the normal parent-child, “I’m OK-You’re not OK” relationships of the time, practised not only by expats from the former colonial masters and elsewhere but also by local leaders – reflecting the deep-rooted local culture of great respect for seniors that assumed the steepest of organisational pyramids with the largest of power gaps between levels.

So here I was, plunged into a country I knew so little about, in a culture so different from the one I was familiar with in Britain, expected to act as a know-it-all in my new environment: change in reverse gear. I was determined to flatten the pyramid, and this transformation I undertook by spelling out my expectation of adult-adult, ‘I’m OK-You’re OK’ relationships and then helping the team to develop such ways of interacting with me and with others. Against the odds, I managed to nurture their path to maturity.

It was a fascinating time, acting as a pioneer for spreading the use of technology in a country that was already ahead of the game relative to elsewhere in Africa, and Kenya has been my home ever since. I continued as a CEO in the IT vendoring business as mini-computers replaced mainframes, in turn giving way to personal computers and laptops; as our customers’ huge systems and programming departments shrank with the advent of software packages; and later as the Internet linked us into the global village. So much change, with each technology not merely enhancing but completely replacing its predecessor.

From IT to management consultancy

My own work as CEO was not significantly affected by these technical revolutions. Rather, it was to help both my staff and my customers deal with the related non-technical challenges, to ease the change management that introducing IT systems always gives rise to. It was a natural transition for me out of the IT industry and into management consultancy. I helped organisations and individuals deal more generally with strategic shifts of all kinds, and with the ever-increasing and unpredictable pace of change. I took on directorships too, in which roles I also helped with such issues, and became a columnist for Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper.

One company where I have been a director for many years is Davis & Shirtliff, which operates in the water and energy sector in numerous African countries and is headquartered in Nairobi. Its Chairman Alec Davis attended London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme in 1992, and its Group CEO David Gatende participated in the same programme in 2010. This was when David met Costas Markides, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, and he recently invited him to join us by video for our Annual Management Conference.

I had just published an article on how to influence change, so listening to Costas speak on the subject at that conference – never mind enjoying how he made his points in such a lively and humorous way – was a great experience, as it was for all those attending virtually from around Eastern and Central Africa.

Costas is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy, with social psychology a key ingredient. In his talk he reflected on how strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to how they are able to influence people’s behaviour.

Behavioural change that lasts

He told the story of the patients who had been released from hospital following major heart surgery and were told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives: no more smoking or drinking alcohol; healthy eating and plenty of exercise. All very logical and rational. The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90% of them had reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, author Alan Deutschman described what differentiated the 10% of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas related. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour – like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people to change, we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional, we heard.

Costas also talked engagingly about how leaders must create an environment that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values; devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours; develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking; and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.

This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want. There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses – such as if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy. Above all, Costas told us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.

For Costas the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. But the optimist within him reassured us that we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. Yet this requires going beyond simply asserting that leaders must lift their people psychologically and emotionally. Leaders must reach out to both the heads and the hearts of their people, enabling them to visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Leading the way in tech

Through the good number of visionary and empathetic leaders that have emerged in Kenya, the country has reinforced its leadership position in technology – we’re known as “Silicon Savannah” – not least with its global pioneering in processing money transfers through mobile phones.

The change to widespread financial digitisation has been made possible by the implementation of appropriate infrastructure, an enabling set of regulations, and not least the good education level and high energy and curiosity of Kenyans generally. As a result, and accelerated by the Covid pandemic, cashless transactions have become a new normal, including in the remotest of areas and among the poorest of citizens.

So are Kenyans generally good at managing change? We have developed an unusually diversified economy with a strong service component and a robust private sector that benefits from a highly developed entrepreneurial spirit. The era of expatriate leadership is long gone, and indeed so many Kenyans fill senior leadership positions all around Africa and more broadly globally.

Do we need to apply more of what Costas writes about and talks about? Of course. And, as everywhere, those who would most benefit from doing so are the ones least likely to. Here I particularly include the usual suspects: politicians and government bureaucrats; small-scale farmers and pastoralists; and family businesses – including many large ones that should know better.

My own time at LBS was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence and preparing me so well for that life-changing overseas assignment all those years ago. I was by far the youngest in our class, and unlike my fellow students (we were only 16 in all) I had not yet benefited from significant formal leadership experience. But my account management and other previous positions had required me to exert influence even in the absence of authority – if anything, a greater challenge. I had also interacted with the top management levels both among my IT customers and within ICL. And I was ahead of the game as far as use of computers was concerned, more so having spent a year running ICL’s IT strategy workshops for CEOs and top civil servants.

So much of what I learned during the Sloan programme – from fellow students as much as from faculty members – affirmed both the good and the bad of what I had been seeing and doing. I was particularly attracted to organisational development as a topic, as we discussed it in the context of the turbulent industrial relations prevailing at the time in the UK that resulted in a three-day week (although not at LBS). I appreciated the practical approach our professors took, while it took us some time to become reaccustomed to the classroom setting. I have since also treasured my friendship with several of my colleagues in that sixth iteration of the Sloan programme: we still have lunch each time I visit London.

Promoting business school exposure among its staff was entirely new to ICL, and its general environment was actually anti-intellectual. The result was that in order to reintegrate me into the “real world” I was initially posted to a sales branch in the City where neither my boss nor my two salesmen had any university exposure at all and were considerably older than me.

To survive my time there I kept quiet about what I had been exposed at LBS, or I would have been mocked for spouting “ivory tower theories”. Little did they realise what stimulation they were missing out on. I learnt so much about building relationships of mutual respect with others very different from me. It took a great deal of holding back on what I might have offered, and required great humility and other aspects of emotional intelligence. Happily, my patience and perseverance were rewarded when I was asked to move to Africa.

Costas’ recent session for us reminded me of my uplifting days on campus next to Regent’s Park, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised London Business School then and showing it to be as vibrant now as it was in the 1970s.

Challenges for leaders today… and how to overcome them

  • Uncertainty: Build a culture of trust, allowing for empowerment and delegation, hence agility to handle change
  • Staff retention: Identify an uplifting purpose; emphasise learning and growth, careers beyond present jobs, and provide coaching
  • Compliance: Handle this “necessary evil” calmly and holistically, with leadership from the board and properly resourced specialist functions
  • ESG: Find ways of doing well by doing good – it takes time, but may be easier and more beneficial than you imagined. Helps to attract and retain staff, customers, investors and others.

Nairobi-based Mike Eldon, a Sloan Fellow of London Business School, is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT; co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership; director of Davis & Shirtliff and Chairman of Occidental Insurance; a member of the Advisory Council of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and a columnist with Business Daily. [email protected]

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs

I was recently facilitating a session with a new board, helping align them with each other and with management and become fit for purpose. And as I was listening to their contributions and the reactions from management I could see that the newcomers, with all their fresh energy and enthusiasm, too often were unaware that some of what they were proposing was either happening already or had been shown not to be effective.

As the discussions progressed the directors graciously realised that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Such inaccurate perceptions aren’t unusual for recent arrivals on boards – nor, by the way, for many who have been around a long time. Plus of course, for those further away from the decision-making and other activities, armchair critics are smugly convinced they are more expert than the experts.

The answer, as I have mentioned before in these columns, is for leaders and others to ask more than tell, to listen openly, applying what Prof. Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry” – the title of his book on the subject. In his 2021 book, Think Again, another great professor of organisational behaviour, Adam Grant, also writes on this common phenomenon. I love how Grant helps us find our way in this fast-changing world, having already written here about his earlier book, Originals.

So now I offer some thoughts from Think Again – whose sub-title is The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. “Knowledge is power,” Grant affirms, adding “knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”

It’s logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence. This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness, with such over-confidence having become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Sadly, as I too have found, over-confident people are the ones least likely to seek guidance from others – in particular, their juniors – and they are the ones who will shun coaches or mentors.

At the other end of the spectrum, Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it’s only their confidence that is lacking. This can turn out to be helpful, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

We have heard about the “confirmation bias” Grant mentions, the search for evidence that supports what we already believe, and he adds “desirability bias”, seeing what we did or didn’t want to see – as those who didn’t want to see Trump as President sought data to show a lower probability that he would be elected. Finally, there’s Grant’s “I’m not biased” bias, which speaks for itself.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. This requires us to think as scientists do, treating our views as mere hypotheses to be tested and reviewed, and so enabling us to remain agile. This mindset contrasts to the “preacher” in us, wedded to tightly-held sacred beliefs; the “prosecutor”, only out to see the flaws in others’ positions; and the “politician”, who merely lobbies for approval from potential supporters.

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs, and often it is these beliefs that hold us back, as Spencer Johnson revealed in that brilliant fable Who Moved My Cheese and its wonderful follow-up, Out of the Maze. Strong justification, Grant advises, for nurturing healthy beliefs at as young an age as possible.

Awareness of all these impediments to and characteristics of quality thinking not only gets us to think about how we approach our own thinking but helps us influence the thinking of those around us – the subject of the second part of Think Again.

For each and every one of us, whether at the personal or family level, whether in our organisation or our community, we need to re-assess our thinking process so as to ensure we’re fit for purpose in these volatile times.

My dearest wish is that as our politicians think about Kenya beyond the 2022 election they too absorb the wisdom of Grant. But given that this appears highly unlikely, it is we the voters who should do so.

Are you an influencer?

Life would be so much easier and less stressful if we could influence others to do what is in their best interest by merely persuading them with logical, rational arguments.

But it often turns out to be really hard, often futile, so we just give up in frustration.

Efforts to influence others can be at the individual level, helping someone to do things like lose weight, give up smoking or drinking or do regular exercise.

It can be at the organisational level — where research shows that 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail to make a difference.

Or it can be in communities and up to national level, all with a view to modifying behaviour. So much effort is invested, too little impact is felt.

My life as a director, a consultant and a writer is all about influencing people, typically to help them work better together without wasting time, energy and emotions struggling with conflict, bureaucracy, silos or other impediments to high performance.

I’d like to think that at least sometimes my circle of influence is adequately significant. But I am possessed of no magic wand, and so however brilliant my change management operations may be, the outcomes with my ‘patients’ are still sometimes less than overwhelming.

Are my Business Daily columns influential? Do I merely raise awareness but stop short of influencing behaviour? Or are some of my readers actually stimulated to change in the way I am advocating?

As for my consultancies and directorships — more so when I am a board chairman — how do I influence behaviours?

All these thoughts swirled around in my mind as I read Influencers, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler — a group of change consultants themselves, who were curious to find out how others who had been of influence went about it.

One of my favourite examples reminded me of my recent hospital experience. A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect.

So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly – the “positive deviants” – to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were smiling, making eye contact, identifying yourself, letting people know what you are doing and why and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Another example is the extraordinary work of microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunis. He found that by grouping women from a village in Bangladesh together and making them communally responsible for evolving viable business plans and for repaying loans made their success rate phenomenal.

I related to this case as some years ago my wife launched a microfinance company, through whose work she saw that the most valuable role it could play was to influence the value of reliability and the behaviours that supported it. It worked.

When it comes to altering behaviour, the authors found that you need to help others answer only two questions. First: Is it worth it? If not, why waste the effort?) And second: Am I able to do this thing? (If not, why even try? Then, you must replace judgment with empathy, and lectures with questions.

The moment you stop trying to impose your agenda on others you eliminate the fight for control.

Storytelling is a powerful way of influencing, they also reveal, relating personal experiences, with all their challenges and setbacks, but where the goal was achieved.

Whose stories? Those of opinion leaders in the group, to whom others listen. For it isn’t the mere merit of an idea that predicts its adoption rate.

Rather, whether opinion leaders embraced and promoted it.

Then, insist on immediate feedback against clear standards, we are advised. Break tasks into discrete actions, set goals for each, practice within a low-risk environment, and build in recovery strategies, while offering real-time coaching.

There’s so much more in this book I would like to share, but I must go to my concluding question: are you skilled at influencing others? Or are you too pushy, too instructive, or otherwise insufficiently smart? Look out for high influencers, and see what to learn from them.

How to bring pastoralists into modern economy

Kenya’s 15 million pastoralists in the northern arid and semi-arid part of the country own 75 percent of our country’s livestock herd, which is valued at around $1 billion and contributes significantly to our GDP.

But we all know what a hard time these pastoralists endure, in areas that suffer from a serious water deficit and are disproportionately affected by below-average rains. Droughts occur there every few years, and climate change is exacerbating the problem.

2021 has been a year of below-average rains in Northern and North Eastern Kenya, but this follows good rains in the previous three years — which had led to a rapid increase in livestock numbers and hence now to massive overstocking. The downturn in tourism precipitated by Covid caused further distress, resulting in serious loss of income to many pastoralist communities and leading to them selling livestock for food.

By the end of this year, drought will begin killing off many more livestock, their prime asset base. And as we build up to the 2022 elections, all the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the 2017 politically-induced mayhem in Laikipia. Even now, so much of the violent conflict in northern Kenya is a result of clashes over water supply, with politicians still playing a far from innocent role.

Efforts by the government, development partners, NGOs and others are too often focused on costly last-minute humanitarian assistance. Not enough has been directed at building sustainability. Where it has, the dilemma between retaining cultures and traditions and integrating these into new economic models has not been adequately conceptualised.

In Turkana, the County Integrated Development Plan, supported by development partners, provides for initiatives aimed at improving the livelihoods of its pastoralists, including by engaging them in agriculture. It’s hard though, requiring a mindset transformation, as their culture is so fundamentally built around pastoralism.

Indeed, when a few young Turkanas sold off some livestock to buy boda bodas and earn a living that way in the Kakuma Refugee Camp their elders were not amused. “Who will look after our herds?” they posed, but more fundamentally they saw that the activity would not result in any asset growth. (We also know that the overwhelming number of all farmers in Kenya are deeply conservative and slow to adopt new approaches.)

Pastoralists are largely of an oral rather than a literate culture. But this does not mean they are at all uneducated in the context of their harsh environment. Quite the contrary. They are of course infinitely better suited to survive there than any outsider, however learned. Not being able to write does not preclude remarkable memory and numeracy skills. And improved memory skills are an essential trait of survival in oral cultures.

It’s good that we who live in a literate economic world should offer suggestions on how to stimulate the cultural change needed to bring pastoralism into the mainstream modern economy. But we must do more open listening to the pastoralists’ knowledge and experience, to their hopes and fears. And we must not do so patronisingly or otherwise insensitively, for this will inevitably lead us to fail.

We must practice the art of “humble inquiry” (to quote the title of Prof Ed Schein’s book – one of my favourites) and so build mutual respect and trusting relationships. Then we’ll be better placed to learn of each community’s true pain points, those beyond the obvious ones such as finances, health and education, corruption and bureaucracy, and youth unemployment.

The challenge for all of us together is to enable pastoralists to grow steadily as economic communities, while being buffered from the effects of drought on their livelihoods.

There is no simple or unique solution to the pastoralists’ plight. Rather, we must pool our ideas and develop an array of approaches, ones that are compatible with existing cultures and that may well vary by community.

The initiatives should also enable not just the pastoralists but the whole country to benefit from the opportunities thus created, now and into the future.

It’s time these marginalised communities — in which one finds plenty of great leadership — are engaged with more actively, innovatively and practically, so their livelihoods can stabilise. If this comes about, the vulnerability to droughts, the aggressive competition for water, and the vulnerability to manipulative politicians, will be transformed.

What it means to lead responsibly

As we enter the new decade, more and more leaders of organisations are thinking about what it means to act responsibly. For it is an increasingly significant factor in ensuring sustainability, and this expectation of acting responsibly applies to how one treats all stakeholders. Today, in my first article of 2020, I focus on what behaving responsibly with one’s staff means.

Of course some leaders have always understood why this is but enlightened self-interest, based on the assumption of reciprocity. And anyway it’s just in the nature of such people to be good to others.

Their style is most likely the consequence of how they were brought up, and how their early bosses treated them. This can work either way. Several of the managers to whom I reported when I joined a British computer multinational company on graduating from university in the 1960s left me distinctly unimpressed. It seemed to me that they understood little about how to motivate and coordinate others, leaving us to find our way by other means. As I read in an article recently, we may well learn at least as much from bad bosses we have endured about how not to lead as from good ones we seek to emulate.

On a much more positive note, at that critical time in my career I benefitted greatly from the wisdom of my father, as he was then leading Shell’s management training division, nurturing the leadership skills of Shell executives from around the world. He and his colleagues (including Charles Handy, who later became Britain’s leading management guru; and for a while Nick Muriuki, who was then Shell Kenya’s Personnel Manager) developed a sense of responsible leadership in them way ahead of their times.

But back to the present. Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. In those days when we joined a company our expectation was that we would stay there for many years, gradually rising up the ranks of management. Now, by contrast, our nomadic millennials assume they will bounce from opportunity to opportunity every few years – correction, every very few years – and expecting to be treated respectfully and be given serious responsibilities in support of worthy causes. (Let’s not overstate this though – baby-boomers too sought uplifting challenges.)

Then, globalisation and the advent of the Internet have led to the internationalisation of the job market in many kinds of activity, from the off-shoring of manufacturing to the online provision of services from anywhere on the planet. Now other fast-developing technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing increasing numbers of human beings, and in particular those who lack the skills to contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So where does this leave responsible leadership? How must leaders behave to attract and retain high-flying and mobile millennials? How can they provide jobs in communities where unemployment is high and the development of skills and attitudes needed for the jobs available – never mind those needed to become entrepreneurs – are lacking? Where to remain competitive they must introduce labour-saving technology, everywhere from banking to farming.

In our turbulent times further concerns appear. Everywhere, as people live longer, how to handle those in their “third age”? We resent them holding onto jobs beyond the age of 60, as a result of which subsequent generations are prevented from fulfilling their potential, and yet many still have much to contribute.

How do we develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, that not only allows different generations to work harmoniously together, but also women and men, people of different ethnicities and religions, various temperaments and preferences?

In countries like Kenya we have hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees, passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian aid. How can they be assisted more sustainably? What is the role of government, and what can leaders beyond government contribute?

Today my space only allows me to pose the questions. But I don’t feel at all badly about that. For it offers you the opportunity to reflect for yourselves on the “so what?” of these questions, without being influenced by my responses. Please do reflect, knowing though that in my next column in a fortnight’s time I will be offering my thoughts on the subject.