Learning as a foundation for engagement, part 3: Tools

Earlier posts in this series introduced organisational learning and explored why the practice hasn’t had much traction in organisations. This post offers tools for learning processes.

1. Suggestion box blog

In this cartoon by Harvey Schwadron – an employee outside the boss’s office drops a suggestion into the suggestion box. Unfortunately, the suggestion box has no bottom and the suggestion falls into the resignation box directly underneath it. In organisations that don’t learn well, suggestions are ignored or, worse, those offering them are treated as troublemakers. Try a suggestion box blog – the blog administrator can receive suggestions and publish them, or enable the person making the suggestion to post directly. If there is an open culture, the blog can be open so others can comment. Responses or contributions from the company’s leader will add to its credibility.

2. After action review

Richard Pascale describes the after action review (AAR) in a HBR article Changing the Way We Change. The practice emerged in the US military and is used after military action or exercises to enable learning. Suspending rank is the key feature of the AAR as it encourages participants to review events in order to learn. The process is based around four questions that can be adapted to any organisation and is especially useful on completion of events or projects.

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why was there a difference?
  • What activities do we sustain and what activities do we improve?

3. Stupid hour

Learning doesn’t come easy when we take ourselves too seriously, or we are driven by the need to look good. Dorothy Marcic, in her ground-breaking book Managing with the Wisdom of Love, advocates a ”stupid hour” where staff get together, perhaps at the end of the week and ask “what are we doing that is really stupid?”

4. Lean thinking

Lean thinking, modelled on Toyota’s processes, provides scaffolding for learning by creating multifunctional teams to surface opportunities for improvements (OFIs). Here is more detail from a post by Alex Twigg.

5. Incentives

Some years ago Portland Cement near Whangarei changed their remuneration system from an over-time based system to a total remuneration system. Overtime hours were annualised and employees were expected to work up to 51 hours for their annualised salary, but could go home if they finished the work. This changed employee behaviour – under the overtime system, they would welcome breakdowns, as they would have to work longer, and therefore make more money. But under the annualised system, they were incentivised to work more smartly. As an example, loader tyres used to be frequently damaged by limestone rock. Employees wanting to get home quicker, welded wings onto the loader buckets to clear rocks away from the tyres. The employees got to go home earlier and the company saved money. Annualisation effectively opened up avenues for learning.

6. Appreciation

Appreciation is arguably the noblest form of communication. Too often, workplace communication focuses on fault-finding – concentrating on what is wrong, rather than what is right. When people are frequently criticised, over time they cease any meaningful communication with those who are criticising. This creates the antithesis of learning. In an environment of appreciation, people feel safe to make suggestions. Here is a link to an earlier post that elaborates on appreciation.

the communication spectrum

7. Undercover boss

The TV show Undercover Boss features businesses in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. Across diverse businesses in these three settings, a consistent experience emerges – when the “boss” gets to know the people on the front line, they typically learn to appreciate what the workers do and return to their C.E. role much better for the experience. The C.E.s often enact employee suggestions, or include the employee in a project team. Here is Directv’s C.E. Mike White, talking about his undercover boss experience.

8. Learning from customers with social media

When I wrote this post about social media in February, this year, Stabucks Facebook page had almost 20 million likes. Now, 11 months later it has more than 26 million. Not all will provide useful insights for Starbucks, but any complaints can be quickly identified. Twitter serves the same purpose.

9. Values for learning

As with any other sustainable development in businesses and communities, better learning processes are underpinned by enabling values. Values that align well with learning include openness, honesty, integrity and appreciation. They are also the antidotes for defensiveness. You can probably think of others.

Do you consider your organisation is skilled at organisational learning?

Communication and engagement part 4: listening

Communication is a core skill for stakeholder engagement.Earlier blogs in this series introduced the communication spectrum and looked in more depth at its engagement and appreciation aspects. This post explores how listening fits with the communication spectrum.

Listening, as with communication, is generic. The communication spectrum helps us to be more specific about the type of communication we want to use, and the same principle applies with listening. For those who haven’t had some sort of coaching or training in listening (the majority of us?), listening is undifferentiated. Some may have learned about active listening. Part of the problem is that good listening, while outwardly passive, takes a lot of focus and discipline, and it’s a little hard to simultaneously listen, and stand back an observe yourself in action.

The neutral zone

Using the communication spectrum, we can identify three zones of listening. In the neutral zone, our listening can be passive and possibly not very effective. We might be disinterested or bored. If our interest is piqued, we might either move towards being more engaged or, on the other hand toward debate and conflict.

The red zone

If our listening heads south towards the red zone we begin to listen for what is wrong. You have probably caught yourself doing this – what started off as a conversation, at some stage became a contest. A clear sign is that you find yourself trying to score points and the communication takes on the pattern of strike and counter-strike of a rally in a tennis match. In formal debates, speakers have their own material to present, but are also listening to find fault in the arguments of the opposition. Debate in our democracies unfortunately operates on this premise, often yielding more heat than light.

The green zone

If the communication heads for the green zone, the listener will draw on skills of rapport building, empathic listening or active listening. For some, these skills have developed non-consciously, others work at them. Expressing appreciation to others needs to be preceded by either observing, or listening for what is right about that person.

Listening for engagement

Communication skills are a core competence for any organisation aspiring to better stakeholder engagement. Improving staff communication skills, in either listening, speaking or writing, equips your staff to engage better internally and externally. One skill especially relevant is empathy. When working with people on engagement processes such as stakeholder mapping, or identifying materiality, I encourage them to think from the stakeholder’s perspective. It takes some practice – it is very easy for people to revert to their own perspective. I suspect this is because most of us are keen to maximise advantage for our organisation. Stakeholder communication calls us to be more nimble and inclusive in our thinking, listening and speaking.

Communication and engagement part 3 – Appreciation

Engagement and appreciation are dimensions of the communication spectrum (introduced in part one of this series). Fostering them will improve communication generally and better equip your organisation for stakeholder engagement. Part three looks at appreciation.

Genuine and heartfelt appreciation is at the apex of communication. It facilitates our relationships, building enduring bonds. It’s a potent antidote for complacency and rejuvenates long-term workplace and personal relationships.

The TV series “Undercover Boss” exemplifies appreciation. In a typical episode the “boss” – usually a CEO or owner engages in low-level jobs. They get to talk to a range of staff and use their engagement skills to establish rapport and get to know them on a personal level. The show finishes with the boss revealing their true identity and expressing profound and specific appreciation for the work these people have done, and, more importantly, who they are.

I have seen both the U.K. and U.S. versions of the show and notice, that across diverse cultures, the responses are the same. The impact of appreciation and acknowledgement on the employees appears profound. Universal human emotions are common currency across the diverse cultures represented. And the experience invariably has a profound impact on the boss.

Of course these programmes are edited for impact and are formulaic, but please suspend any cynicism you may have and check out this extract from a show. (apologies for the ad. at the front)

Positive psychology

The disciplines of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry provide the conceptual framework and tools to support appreciation. Positive psychology identifies the negative bias in our thinking – understandable in an evolutionary context shaping risk aversion responses. In the twentieth century we invented hundreds of words to describe deficit and dysfunction (and built industries around these). Thus, in our private and organisational lives, we are naturally inclined to the negative. While acknowledging this, positive psychology aspires “to find and nurture genius and talent.”

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, identifies that those “experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity”. This calls us to be more aware of our emotions and look for the positive around us. Finding those things that we are grateful for, is the portal to appreciation. Viktor Frankl, in his inspiring Man’s Search for Meaning, reveals how this can happen in the most extreme environments:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken form a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (pg 65 to 66).

Appreciative inquiry

As people respond to the myriad things that can go wrong, the default mode of operation in organisations can be fault-finding and problem-solving. David Cooperrider and others advocate an appreciative approach. “…problem-solving approaches are notorious for placing blame and generating defensiveness. ‘They sap your energy and tax your mind, and don’t advance the organization’s evolution beyond a slow crawl’”.

By contrast appreciative inquiry advocates that we look for what is working well and magnify it. This is akin to the idea that the racing-car driver is best to focus on the road ahead rather than the wall. Appreciative inquiry can shape strategy or operations by selecting an affirmative topic, such as “where are our best examples of delivering a great customer experience?” and then working through the four stages of inquiry – discovery, dream, design and destiny (see below). Imagine the intensification of engagement and potential for positive change made possible by this process.

Caveat: appreciation works best with proximity

I believe that engagement is the gateway to appreciation, or a pre-requisite (I welcome your thinking on this). In situations where peoples’ voice is not given space for expression, appreciation will be a rare commodity. In many organisations islands of appreciation can develop amongst colleagues and teams in close (or virtual) proximity. The challenge is to make it more pervasive and immune to boundaries. And appreciation is not ingratiation. The organisation phenomena that fosters primitive “kiss up, kick down” behaviour creates the antithesis of appreciation.

Generating appreciation

Here are simple steps to increase appreciation

  1. Check your filters – audit what you pay attention to in different situations.
  2. Notice what good/great/beautiful about a friend, loved one, contact or colleague.
  3. Express appreciation addressing specific behaviours or attitudes rather than general compliments.

What has your experience of appreciation been – I would love to hear your story.

Additional resources:

Appreciative inquiry

Positive psychology

Communication and engagement, part one – the communication spectrum

The term “communication” embraces the range of human interaction. Being more precise about the type of communication we want to enhance, enables us to better evaluate the quality of our communication, and move the organisation forward with specific communication skills, such as engagement.

Communication is interaction. Messages are given and received verbally and non-verbally. When people ask for “more communication” what specifically do they mean? Such a request is very broad and wide-open to interpretation. Here is a model that I call the communication spectrum. It represents a range of communication flavours that we might encounter in our most intimate relationships, our families, communities and workplaces.

At the top of the spectrum in the green zone are appreciation and engagement. We want more of these for effective communication to foster the development of the important relationships in our lives. Talk is in the neutral range of the spectrum. It can range from the more positive manifestations such as dialogue, (inferring an exchange) through to monologue (inferring communication with a dominant party).

The red zone is where our communication can go wrong, and so often does. Debate is ok, but not when the contest is more important than the communication. Conflict can be very productive, but it also depletes us. And communication is really heading for the red zone when someone withdraws, seeing no point in further exchanges, or a lack of safety. Both physical and verbal abuse are communication, and neither serves any useful purpose.

This model provides an easy to understand tool to evaluate the quality of our communication. We can simply ask: Is this communication above, or below, the horizon? Or, how much of my time do I spend above the horizon? What would happen if I spent more time in engagement and appreciation?

Effective stakeholder engagement will happen in a workplace communication climate where engagement is valued, not just as a skill to use with external stakeholders, but as a predominant way of communicating. In part two of this post, we will look at ways to foster this skill.

Appreciation is not ingratiation – where an underling curies favour in a transactional manner. It is more the result of experiencing empathy for others, being grateful for their contribution and gaining insights into their world. Thus appreciation is a skill that supports engagement.

So what is the quality of communication like in your key relationships? And, where it is needed, how can you move it above the horizon?

Note that the categories here are very broad. Others could be included. Do you see any major omissions?